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Equality in Education Law and Policy, 1954-2010

reviewed by John Spencer - August 22, 2013

coverTitle: Equality in Education Law and Policy, 1954-2010
Author(s): Benjamin M. Superfine
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1107016924, Pages: 272, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

The decades since Brown v. Board of Education have given rise to multiple school reform movements, including desegregation, school finance reform, standards-based reform and accountability policies, laws and policies to protect the rights of English Language Learners and students with disabilities, school choice and vouchers, and more robust forms of teacher evaluationand multiple books have been published on each of these. Equality in Education Law and Policy, 1954-2010 is an ambitious book that analyzes all of these movements together, as manifestations of an ongoing but ever-shifting quest for equality in American education. Author Benjamin Michael Superfine offers a valuable synthesis of the period since Brown, providing a fair-minded assessment of achievements as well as shortcomings and using historical analysis as a basis for recommending future courses of action in educational law and policy.

This is an interdisciplinary book that should be of interest to graduate students, policymakers, and scholars in various fields, including law, educational policy, history, and political science. From the latter discipline, Superfine draws upon policy regimes theory, emphasizing the interaction of ideas, institutions, and political interests over time; specifically, the book traces the interplay between three main elements: the idea of educational equality; the goals or purposes of education; and educational governance structures. In his analysis of governance structures, Superfine also draws on comparative institutional choice theory, focusing on the differing characteristics of legislatures, agencies, courts, and markets.

The author introduces these frameworks in a pair of opening chapters that might have benefited from further editing, but the book gains momentum in Chapters Three and Four, which chart the development and expansion of equality-focused law and policy during the civil rights era. In the wake of Brown, equality meant protecting the rights of underrepresented groups by ensuring that they received the same funding, resources, and access to schooling as everyone else. The federal courts were the key institutions that promoted this vision of equality, through desegregation, and, as stated in Brown, the key educational goals were 1) to prepare students for democratic citizenship (a public purpose) and 2) to give them an equal shot at social mobility (a private goal). The late 1960s and 1970s saw the maturation of this focus, as seen in the expansion of legal and policy action to include not only desegregation but also school finance reform and the protection of the rights of disabled students and English Language Learners.

The rest of the book analyzes the transformation of this civil rights concept of equalityand the educational goals and governance structures associated with itinto new formulations that shape law and policy to this day. As in many other accounts, the Reagan era in the 1980s marks the key turning point. International economic competition fueled a shift in the public goals of education from democratic citizenship to the preparation of a workforce that could compete globally. Opposition to court-mandated reform led to institutional changes, especially the rise of state legislative and executive activity and a strong ethos of local control. And above all, these changes went hand in hand with a concept of equality that changed in three ways: from the protection of rights to the reform of whole school systems that were thought to have produced inequalities in the first place; from equality of inputs (funding, access to schools and programs) to an emphasis on educational outcomes as measured by standardized tests; and from sameness to the notion that all students should receive at least an adequate education, defined in relation to standards.

Chapter Five lays out this basic shift as it began to play out in the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk (1983), in the rise of standards-based reform in the mid-1980s and 1990s, and in a third wave of school finance reform that, in keeping with the new concept of equality, shifted focus from equal funding to the provision of an adequate education. Chapter Six fits movements for school choice (vouchers and charter schools) into the picture, explaining how, on the one hand, the emphasis of these policies on local control was at odds with the centralizing tendency of standards, while at the same time market-based choice schemes fit with the new emphasis on improving teaching and learning outcomes across entire school systems. Chapter Seven brings the stories of standards-based reform and choice into the twenty-first century with an analysis of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), more commonly known as the federal Stimulus.

In many ways, Superfine tells a familiar story, but his treatment does stand out in several respects. The book offers an impressive synthesis of many movements that elsewhere tend to be treated separately. The authors accounts of these movements are solidly grounded in key secondary literature as well as court cases and other primary materials, and while readers are not likely to find many surprising insights on topics in which they specialize, they surely will find something new and informative due to the sheer breadth of coverage. Meanwhile, in another act of synthesis, the author does a fine job of integrating his legal and policy analysis with an attention to teaching and learning on the ground in schools, including the ways in which local school experience shapes implementation in unexpected and powerful ways.

Equality in Education Law and Policy, 1954-2010 also offers some fresh ways of thinking about changes in law and policy from the 1960s to the present. Instead of the familiar narrative of equity to excellence, Superfine presents shifting concepts of equality, which is in some ways more helpful to understanding our present situation. To be sure, since the Reagan era some proponents of standards-based reform and choice have been indifferent or even hostile to equality, however one might define it. (The author might have done more to acknowledge this point). Yet many have embraced those policies at least in part because they felt them to be a means to improve education for previously underserved populations, and Superfine captures that part of the storythe part that makes it easier to understand why standards- and market-based reforms gained the support of some liberals as well as conservatives. For example, in chronicling a groundswell of standards-based reform in states and in the passage of Goals 2000 at the federal level in the 1990s, Superfine reminds us that some early advocates of systemic reform took their cues from the effective schools movement and/or emphasized opportunity to learn (OTL) standards that specified resources needed by teachers and schools in order to properly implement academic standards. He also calls for a renewed focus on OTL standards, which fell by the wayside in Goals 2000 and NCLB.

Finally, Equality in Education Law and Policy, 1954-2010 is a notably fair-minded and subtle book. Readers will find critical commentary on the shortcomings of past and current policies and, at the same time, thoughtful assessments of progress and potential. For example, while Superfine sees the desegregation of the South in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a shining moment in the history of equality-based reform, he also notes that the reforms of that era (including school finance reform and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) were focused on centralized regulation of funding and other inputs rather than tackling educational elements that are closer to the core of what happens in schools and classrooms (p. 199). Standards-based reform and the concept of providing an adequate education had the advantage of addressing the substance of teaching and learning and providing a more workable basis for court decisions in school finance reform cases; yet, as Superfine also emphasizes, the new era of equality brought new problems, in some ways even bigger ones, because directly changing what transpires in schools and classrooms is not something any high-level government institution is well-equipped to do (p. 97). NCLB and ARRA have instituted required results without fostering teachers and schools capacities for actually attaining them. To this day, as the author emphasizes throughout the book, students educational opportunities have remained persistently unequal.

Drawing on his assessment of the pitfalls of past policies, Superfine concludes by recommending four principles to guide future law and policy focused on equality: 1) build stronger political consensus around educational goals; 2) strategically restructure educational governance so that institutions are involved in ways that align with their strengths and weaknesses; 3) engage with schools and classrooms; and 4) use strong research and evidence while remaining flexible and sensitive to local context. As an example of applying these principles, he discusses how the teacher workforce reforms of the Obama era might be restructured in a more fruitful wayfor example, by having Congress establish a set of evidence-based instructional principles (broader and more flexible than the current focus on best practices) to guide the monitoring and management of teachers; and using the courts to foster dialogue among local actors and insist on such features as opportunity to learn standards.

If there is a critique to be made of this excellent book, it might be that the author could do more to wrestle with, or at least acknowledge, the pitfalls of putting so much burden on schools and school reform as agents of equality in Americaa longstanding tendency that has reached a peak precisely since Brown. Superfine does an admirable job of recognizing obstacles to effective reform while at the same time seeking constructive lessons and paths forward. But the story is arguably darker than he concedes. Equality and, indeed, inequality are shaped and structured beyond schools, in ways that constrain what educators as well as educational policymakers might accomplish. So, while the authors concluding recommendations on teacher workforce reform are thoughtful, and they proceed from the insight that teachers are the most important influence on teaching and learning within schools, it is also important to note the even greater impact of socioeconomic status on school achievement, as documented by researchers since the Coleman Report (1966). Especially since the 1980s, Americans have tended to ignore those non-school factors and promote inexpensive versions of school reform instead. To address increasingly vast inequalities in private economic resources beyond the schools is a difficult matter of political will and competing political interests. To some extent, Superfines otherwise sensible recommendations make school reform sound overly technical: a task of matching up appropriate institutional actors with evidence-based approaches in the service of agreed-upon goals. A worthy ambitionthough it arguably underestimates the challenges of building a societal commitment to improving capacity and providing adequate resources in schools serving the most vulnerable populations.

That being said, Equality in Education Law and Policy, 1954-2010 is an impressive and valuable contribution to our understanding of how equality-focused laws and policies have evolved in the recent past and, just as important, how they might be shaped into the future.


Coleman, J. (1966). Equality and Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17222, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 1:03:10 PM

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About the Author
  • John Spencer
    Ursinus College
    E-mail Author
    JOHN SPENCER is Associate Professor of Education at Ursinus College. He is the author of In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform and other publications on education policy and the history of urban school reform. He worked for five years as a high school and middle school history teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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