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Book Review

Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools

In the introduction to this compelling and well-documented book, the authors write: “Many believe that those who fail to achieve or ‘make it’ in society are to blame for their own failure. It is their individual choice not to take advantage of the opportunities provided to them.

“We can affect what states and schools do. We can legally mandate their responsibilities. But we cannot legislate individual success. If students do not choose to use their talents, effort, and energies, no one can make them. We can provide a level playing field for schools, but we cannot make each child play the game or play his or her hardest. If we provide a level playing field, then if children do not succeed it must be because they do not try or do not have what it takes. It is sad, but that is life. It is their fault, not society’s fault.

“This line of thinking is comforting to some and lets us off the hook for some of society’s continuing inequalities, but it is a myth.

“This book is about the disturbing reality that, although we want to believe it, the myth that there is a level playing field for all children and that schooling offers equal educational opportunities to is likely a myth…. It is likely not true even for two children who live in the same neighborhood but attend dif-
ferent schools. It is especially not  true for two children who live in neighborhoods with vastly different standards of living.”

Because what is taught in our schools, and when it is taught, is determined on a state or local level rather than on a national level, the authors argue, the educational “playing field” for America’s students is wildly uneven. A mathematical concept that is taught in 2nd grade at one school, may not be taught until the 4th grade in another school.

 “Inequality of learning opportunities,” they assert, “is not just a matter of inferior schools in inner cities or rural areas. It also happens in comfortable, middle class suburbs. Two schools in the same state located in two different communities serving children of identical family backgrounds—identical in terms of wealth, education level of parent, income, professional status, and so forth—are not guaranteed to provide the same OTL [opportunities to learn] to their students.

“[S]uch opportunities to learn,” the authors believe, “become the most critical, and perhaps the defining, feature of schooling. If these opportunities to learn specific content are not provided for all students, then no real claim can be made for providing a chance at equal opportunities for all students.

“We also believe that the data will show that the system of U.S. schooling is itself structured in ways that do not provide opportunities to learn certain topics for minorities, the poor, and those who struggle in school generally.”

In describing the vagaries of America’s school system, Schmidt and McKnight write: “Children have different content exposures that are quite distinct simply because of the particular communities in which they live, the schools they attend, the teachers they have, the textbooks to which they are exposed, and the types of tests they take. All of these factors create the differences that accumulate until they become enormous in scope.”

The authors believe the way to level out the playing field is to have a national curriculum. They see some hope in the Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts and Mathematics that have been adopted by more than 40 states.