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Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education

reviewed by Brian P. Zoellner & Jerry Johnson - September 18, 2014

coverTitle: Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education
Author(s): Greg J. Duncan & Richard J. Murnane
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612506348, Pages: 200, Year: 2014
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In Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, Duncan and Murnane set out to tackle the topic of inequality in American society. Duncan and Murnane view education as a critical economic lever for social mobility; they further contend that schools have not worked effectively to provide opportunities for students to improve their socio-economic status. To address this issue, the authors advocate supporting, as well as holding accountable, educational staff in schools.

In the first four chapters, the authors describe the contexts and issues encompassing educational opportunity inequality, and set forth their argument for the pairing of accountability and support as key elements for the successful reform of schools which serve low-income students. They argue that the decline of manufacturing and the advancement of technology in the industrial sector since the 1970s have decreased the demand for unskilled labor (Chapter Two). This phenomenon has hit low-SES groups the hardest, and has affected student achievement as evidenced in the achievement gap (Chapter Three). Worse, the schools that serve low-SES students often lack the resources and capacity needed to serve their student populations effectively (Chapter Four).

Drawing from sociologist Annette Lareau’s work, the authors illustrate just how the disparity has grown via vignettes of the lives of four boys from different social classes. Children in the upper classes are afforded greater opportunities and support through structured, extra-curricular activities, while those in the lower classes receive less support outside of school and are often left on their own after school. Schools that serve low-SES students often have crumbling infrastructure, lack the facilities and resources necessary for high-quality instruction, and fail to attract skilled teachers. Here, too, the narrative largely reflects what is already available in the existing literature: from seminal theoretical texts like Bourdieu & Passeron (1990), Bowles & Gintis (1976), and Willis (1977); to specific applications in various journal articles (e.g., Borman & Kimball, 2005; Klugman, 2012; and Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002).

From these preliminary discussions about the differential supports and challenges for high- and low-SES students, the authors share cases that reflect their recommendations for schools to address the issues facing low-income students. They then draw specific examples, which successfully address the disparities, from schools and programs across the United States: (a) a Boston pre-kindergarten program and elementary school, (b) a classroom in a Chicago charter school and support network in Chicago, (c) some small high schools in New York City, and (d) a family work-support program. This selection of cases is useful and covers a broad range of the educational system, as each program varies in target population, location, and scale.

In Chapter Five, Duncan and Murnane discuss the Boston Public Schools’ Department of Childhood Education pre-kindergarten program. This program has successfully decreased the gap in skill sets between low- and middle-SES students. Using a common curriculum for all pre-kindergarten classrooms, teachers were supported through coordinated coaching and professional development. Accountability—via student assessments—provided data to make changes when needed.

Chapter Six details the work in an elementary charter school supported by the University of Chicago. The example is a charter school, and the authors acknowledge the existent research suggesting that charters fare no better than traditional schools when it comes to improving instructional outcomes for low-income students. However, they identify what they see as an increased ability to institute reform in a new school, which is more likely to be a charter, than in one that already exists. The reforms that influenced the school’s successful operation included the use of assessment data to inform instruction, and various supports provided to staff (e.g., professional development) and students (e.g., tutoring).

The authors then share the case of the New Century High Schools project in New York City (Chapter Seven). This program was designed to drive the creation of small high schools in low-income areas that students might choose to attend. These smaller school settings provided greater opportunities for students to develop supportive, caring relationships with teachers and other students, and to participate in meaningful school and community work. Schools provided collaborative professional development for staff and targeted interventions for struggling students.

The final case, described in Chapter Eight, is that of family support networks as represented by the New Hope program for low-income working adults in Milwaukee. Program participants were held accountable through a work requirement, and received support through income supplements, day care and healthcare subsidies, among other assistance. The focus on family interactions in relation to school outcomes is an important one to include in the study. Such factors can be overlooked by typical education reformers, who tend to focus on in-school factors related to student performance. The authors mention the accountability and support measures provided to the New Hope representatives, but the discussion was brief and could use further development.

Throughout, Duncan and Murnane attempt to strike a balance in their treatment of charters, school choice, standardized testing-based accountability, and reorganizational schemes (e.g., mayoral control of schools). In this sense they seem to be positioning themselves somewhere between old-guard defenders and the more recent corporate reformers of school systems.

Terms like support and accountability are difficult to argue against, and one would struggle to find any reasonable educational professional who opposes the concepts. However, there is room to debate the ways in which the terms are operationalized. When examining the authors’ notion of support, we find that it focuses almost entirely on the successful implementation of a curriculum designed by someone outside the classroom—even the school. Accountability is standards-based and emphasizes shared responsibility; however, the accountability described does not seem shared: the approach advocated by the authors is top-down, decreases teacher autonomy, and focuses on successful implementation and outcomes that are most effectively measured through standardized testing. Charters, operated by management organizations, just recreate issues surrounding existing organizational structures—that is, structures that are unelected and thus less accountable to broad constituencies. More specifically, Duncan and Murnane push for the corporate reform model of Common Core and school choice, and for the assumptions that surround these models: that schools are the primary cause of—and thus lever for—social mobility.

Where Duncan and Murnane differ is in their advocacy for a comprehensive approach—one that some reform advocates lack. Some reforms emphasize school supports; others focus strictly on accountability. Here, the authors of this text advocate including both concepts. Though their ideas could be developed further, they convincingly argue that support and accountability are intertwined—both are necessary for improved student outcomes. With more targeted research, perhaps we can understand what this looks like in classrooms.


Borman, G., & Kimball, S. (2005). Teacher quality and educational equality: Do teachers with higher standards-based evaluation ratings close student achievement gaps? The Elementary School Journal, 106(1), 3–20.

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. (1990). Reproduction in education, society, and culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1977). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic.

Klugman, J. (2012). How resource inequalities among high schools reproduce class

advantages in college destinations. Research in Higher Education, 53(8), 803–830.

Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2002). Teacher sorting and the plight of urban

schools: A descriptive analysis. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(1), 37–62.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs.

New York: Columbia University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 18, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17685, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:42:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Brian P. Zoellner
    University of North Florida
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN P. ZOELLNER is an Assistant Professor in the Foundations and Secondary Education Department at the University of North Florida. In this capacity he works as the Secondary Science Education Program Head and supervises student teaching interns. His research interests include STEM curriculum development and implementation, teacher theorizing and decision making, and educational policy.
  • Jerry Johnson
    University of West Florida
    E-mail Author
    JERRY JOHNSON is Chair of Teacher Education and Educational Leadership at the University of West Florida. His research interests include educational policy, school leadership, and community-based education. Recent publications include Dynamics of Social Class, Race, and Place in Rural Education (IAP), and he is currently working on multiple projects investigating school and community factors related to student engagement.
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