The Opportunity Gap: Achievement and Inequality in Education

reviewed by Edward St. John - July 26, 2007

coverTitle: The Opportunity Gap: Achievement and Inequality in Education
Author(s): Carol DeShano Da Silva, James Phillip Huguley, Zenub Kakli, and Radika Rao
Publisher: The Harvard Educational Publishing Group, Cambridge
ISBN: 9781916690472, Pages: 320, Year: 2007
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Government initiated education reform and social justice were not well aligned in the late twentieth century, creating a challenging problem for activist educators and researchers. The Opportunity Gap, a series of Harvard Educational Review articles from 1970 to 2004, addresses this problem. The book is organized into three parts that provide 1) thoughtful essays on educational inequality, some using a global perspective; 2) qualitative studies of schools and students; and 3) essays on actionable reform projects. The introduction and afterward focus on No Child Left Behind, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formalizing accountability and testing schemes nationwide, and asks whether implementation of the NCLB will reduce the achievement gap. Given that these papers were published over a thirty-five year period, one needs a historical perspective to understand how these essays might inform educational improvement in the early 21st century.

What is striking about these articles is how contemporary they all seem. It is sad that essays written over four decades can all sound so current regarding problems with inequality. This eerie aspect of the book, along with the combined focus on global frameworks in relation to urban education, raises the question: Has education reform failed urban schools and, if so, will NCLB follow this pattern of failure? While this is not a new question (e.g., Mirón & St. John, 2004), it is certainly an important one. The major theme cutting across these reprinted articles is that inequalities in education are exceedingly difficult to remedy through policy mandates. A secondary theme, especially from articles in Part Three, is that a deep commitment to justice on the part of educators is a necessary ingredient in efforts to narrow that gap through accelerating the learning of students facing inequalities due to poverty or inadequate prior schooling. Given the importance of situating arguments about policy, this review uses a chronological approach.

Published originally in 1970, a period when programs created by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were still early in the implementation process, Ray Rist’s “Student social class and teacher expectations” provides a study of Kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms in high poverty schools in the late 1960s. His analyses illustrate how the grouping of students within classrooms starts the process of discrimination at this very early stage of the educational process. He documents that teachers rationalize these groupings based on test scores and argue that only students in the advanced groups are able to understand that this grouping is taking place. His analysis also illuminates some of the ways students interpret teachers’ behaviors, illustrating a social reproduction in action. At the time, the Title I program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) had been implemented to remedy early inequalities in reading through compensatory education. Yet there is no indication from Rist’s article as to whether there was supplemental support through Title I. He illustrated the problems that existed—and still exist—in schools, but provided no information about whether compensatory education programs of the period reduced these inherent inequalities. Research on the effects of Title I during the period was mixed (Wong, 2004), and within a decade there were efforts to transform Title I.

A second article was originally published in 1989, a period when strategies for compensatory education were revised through comprehensive interventions led by people like James Comer (1980), Hank Levin (1995; Hopfenberg, Levin & Associates, 1993), and Robert Slavin (1991), who were engaged in reinventing strategies for accelerating the learning of low-income school children in urban settings. In “The Algebra Project: Organizing in the Spirit of Ella,” Robert Moses and his co-authors build the case for access to advanced math as a civil right. They not only argue a link between citizenship and access to advanced math, but they document their own intervention in schools, from Mississippi to Cambridge, that provide Algebra in middle schools. They develop a grassroots process of reform, involving parents and engaging students, making math meaningful in multiple ways.

The Algebra Project started with Moses’ interventions as a math teacher encouraging algebraic thinking. He discovered an engaging process of Algebra education that has since been expanded to a new generation of educators and students (Moses & Cobb, 2001). Moses’ math interventions use a process-oriented change method that promotes cultural transformation and enables people of color to realize their civil rights in addition to an emphasis on advanced math methods. In a 1989 article, Moses et al. align their approach with Comer’s argument that “significant innovations must transform the culture” (p. 251) and Levin, who emphasized “the importance of process” (p. 251).

Moses’ argument—that access to advanced math in high school is a student’s right, a standard not evident for many African American students in public schools--parallels Nussbaum’s argument (1999, 2001) that women have the right to an education sufficient for employment to support their families, a standard not met in many developing countries. Like Moses, Nussbaum argued that science and math education were a necessary part of this education. These arguments about human rights in relation to educational opportunity are compelling. Moses also took an activist approach based on a realization that education should be engaging to overcome the deep cultural barriers evident in Rist’s analysis from nearly two decades earlier.

“Poverty and Education” by Raewyn Connell, published in the Harvard Educational Review in 1994, critiques the movement toward “standards” and “accountability” as a global trend started in the U. S. by A Nation at Risk (U.S. Department of Education, 1983). Not only does Connell demonstrate similar trends in Australia, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., she also identifies critical challenges facing compensatory education, the U.S. strategy for equalizing education opportunity through Title I of the ESEA. While the 1980 Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA) had substantially revised other programs authorized under ESEA, Title I was reauthorized with little revision as Chapter 1.

A Nation at Risk, published in 1983, altered the debate about education reform, providing the starting point of Connell’s rethinking of the problem. Her purposes in this article were:

to question the social and educational assumptions behind the general design of compensatory education programs; to propose an alternative way of thinking about the education of children in poverty drawn from current practice and social research; and to explore some broad questions about strategy of reform this rethinking implies (p. 14).

Connell’s argument is based on the idea that discussions about “disadvantaged minorities” and “cultural deficits” are false premises for reform. In her view, this talk about the disadvantaged stopped short of critiquing the language of power. She argues it is more appropriate to focus on curriculum:

When progress in mainstream curriculum is taken as the goal of intervention, the curriculum is exempted from criticism. However, the experience of teachers in disadvantaged schools has persistently led them to question the curriculum. Conventional subject matter and texts and teaching methods and assessment techniques turn out to be sources of systematic difficulty (p. 24).

Rist’s analysis of elementary schools, published in HER decades earlier, revealed the pattern of using testing and grouping to reproduce class structure. These patterns are also evident in Connell’s critique: “To accomplish the institutional change needed by children in poverty requires greater social forces than the poverty programs themselves generate. At the end of the day, then, the educational problems of compensatory education are political problems” (p. 32). This activist language certainly resonates with the idea of advanced math education as a civil right presented by Moses and his colleagues five years earlier and reprinted in this volume. Connell’s arguments are politically aligned as a counterview to the direction taken by education reform created by ESEA and carried forward in a slightly altered form in the excellence movement.

In her 1994 HER article, “Lessons from students on creating chance to dream,” Sonia Nieto provides analyses of case studies “of young people from a wide variety of ethnic, racial, and social-class backgrounds who were at the time students in junior or senior high school” (p. 288).  Nieto argues that the curriculum of schools is at odds with the experiences of children and that teachers lack knowledge and understanding of their students’ culture. Instead she argues for a more engaging form of pedagogy. “While rarely speaking with one voice, they [the ten students] nevertheless have similar overriding concerns: too many classrooms are boring, alienating, and disempowering” (p. 301). She reports having been “struck by how little young people believe they deserve, especially for those who do not come from economically privileged backgrounds” (p. 314). The patterns evident among teenagers in the early 1990s are what might be expected by the school children studied by Risk in the late 1960s, providing they made it to high school. If we put these two studies together there is an image of failure within the schools, possibly for all children but certainly for children of poverty.

Wells and Serna’s “The politics of culture: Understanding local political resistance to detracking in racially mixed schools” originally appeared in HER in 1996. One of the themes from the studies by Rist, Moses et al., and Nieto is that schools reproduce social class through screening and sorting functions within the curriculum and social structure of schools. Wells and Serna examine how parents react to changes in schools that deconstruct this common structure of power. The authors use the theory of cultural capital as a basis for examining resistance by parents who expect special treatment in the placement of their children in school. “We found the elite parents rationalized their children’s entitlement to better educational opportunities based on the resources they themselves brought to the system” (p. 145). They also found that elite parents “threatened to leave the school” when they did not receive the treatment they perceived they deserved. This expectation of intergenerational transmission of privilege was a mechanism that apparently undermined efforts to improve equity within the structure of schools.  

In “Cognitive skills and economic inequality: Findings from the National Adults Survey” (originally published in HER in 1998), Raudenbush and Kasim focus on the economic and social consequences of the unequal pattern of schooling by examining the economic impact of literacy in adulthood. The authors systematically examine different explanations of income differences across racial groups. Their conclusion:

Equalizing access to years of schooling and even to educational credentials is not sufficient. There are clearly important differences in cognitive skills among persons sharing the same education backgrounds, and these differences are linked to prospects for employment and earnings. These findings lend urgency to the task of improving the quality of schooling and non-school educative environments, especially for Hispanic American and African American youth. (p. 113)

Clearly by the end of the 20th century, it was evident from this set of HER articles that the consequences of unequal schooling contribute to economic inequalities in society. Enabling more students to gain access to education had not solved the problems of inequality in educational achievement, or addressed their economic consequences. Raudenbush and Kasim conclude: “In light of historical inequalities, such evidence of current inequality supports a renewed and aggressive effort to secure opportunities for minorities and women in the workplace, as well as in school” (p. 114).

Two of the chapters were originally published in HER in 2001, a period during which the current system of aligned standards, curriculum, and testing was taking form. In “Improve the women”: Mass schooling, female literacy, and worldwide social change,” Levine, Levine, and Schnell-Anzola focus on literacy for women as a global problem. Using studies in Nepal and Venezuela as evidence, they propose and test a theory that links years of schooling to literacy, making the argument that developing countries should extend the years of schooling for women. This line of argument resonates with the human capabilities perspective of women’s literacy (Nussbaum, 1999; Sen, 1999). Certainly access to basic education looms as a crucial global issue, but as Raudenbush and Kasim documented, the quality of schooling in addition to years of school are crucial to overcoming inequalities in earnings and occupations over lifetimes.

In “Structuring failure and success: Understanding variability in Latino school engagement,” Conchas (2001) illustrated that small school programs within a comprehensive high school provided engaging learning opportunities for Hispanic students. “Academies programs” are small schools within school programs used in high schools. The method is used in many of the major high school reform models. Academies are among the high school reforms funded through federal programs for Comprehensive School Reform, a more recent use of Title I funding (Wong, 2004). Conchas reaches on optimistic conclusion:


In general, this case study of Latino students shows the diversity of experiences in a large comprehensive high school. It suggests that, while schools often replicate existing social and economic inequality present in the larger society and culture, they can also circumvent inequality if students and teachers work in consort toward academic success (pp. 182-183).

Like Moses, et al., who wrote a decade earlier, Conchas identifies an engaging approach to reform that can overcome, or circumvent, the reproduction of inequality. While the overall pattern of schools reproducing inequality may remain firmly in place, there appear to be promising alternatives.

Finally, the most recent article in this volume is by Kliewer et al., “Citizenship for all in the literate community: An ethnography of young children with significant disabilities in inclusive, early childhood settings.” This article, published in 2004, provides another qualitative study. Its findings show that teachers’ commitment made a difference: “Beyond mere presence, however, was the teachers’ active belief that literacy was many things and that all students, including those with the most complex disabilities, were capable of sense making” (p. 280). This conclusion again echoes the conclusions that engaged learning offers an alternative to the reproduction of difference through a hidden curriculum that limits opportunity for some and accelerates learning for others.

This chronological discussion of the republished HER articles brings us back to the contemporary question: Will NCLB reinforce inequality through discriminatory and unequal education, or will it enable more educators to develop engaging learning opportunities? In the afterward, Ronald Ferguson observes, “Getting serious about closing the racial gaps in achievement will be a huge social and political undertaking that needs to be sustained over several decades, often on the basis of hope, faith, and stubborn determination” (p. 322). Put another way, the life expectancy of NCLB is probably too short to solve the problem.

Like past efforts that have taken a look at the consequences of federal reform efforts (e.g., Mirón & St. John, 2004), the chapters in this volume paint a portrait of replicating inequality through education, with glimmers of hope. These chapters have added to the understanding of the potential of engaged models of educational reform that enable students through innovative projects in math and the comprehensive reform of schools. Finding better ways to create engaging learning environments remains a critical challenge. This volume offers some hope that it is possible, even if large scale reform to reduce inequality will, once again, take decades to implement.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2007 ID Number: 14565, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 12:45:43 AM

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