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Smedley BD, Stith AY, Colburn L, et al.; Institute of Medicine (US). The Right Thing to Do, The Smart Thing to Do: Enhancing Diversity in the Health Professions: Summary of the Symposium on Diversity in Health Professions in Honor of Herbert W.Nickens, M.D.. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001.

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The Right Thing to Do, The Smart Thing to Do: Enhancing Diversity in the Health Professions: Summary of the Symposium on Diversity in Health Professions in Honor of Herbert W.Nickens, M.D..

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Inequality in Teaching and Schooling: How Opportunity Is Rationed to Students of Color in America

Linda Darling-Hammond

Stanford University School of Education

Despite the rhetoric of American equality, the school experiences of African-American and other “minority” students in the United States continue to be substantially separate and unequal. Few Americans realize that the U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and that students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status. In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest 10% of school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10%, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. Poor and minority students are concentrated in the least well-funded schools, most of which are located in central cities or rural areas and funded at levels substantially below those of neighboring suburban districts. Recent analyses of data prepared for school finance cases in Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, and Texas have found that on every tangible measure—from qualified teachers to curriculum offerings—schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students.

Not only do funding systems allocate fewer resources to poor urban districts than to their suburban neighbors, but studies consistently show that, within these districts, schools with high concentrations of low-income and “minority” students receive fewer instructional resources than others in the same district. And tracking systems exacerbate these inequalities by segregating many low-income and minority students within schools (Kozol, 1991; Taylor & Piche, 1991). In combination, policies associated with school funding, resource allocations, and tracking leave minority students with fewer and lower-quality books, curriculum materials, laboratories, and computers; significantly larger class sizes; less qualified and experienced teachers; and less access to high-quality curriculum.

The end results of these educational inequalities are increasingly tragic. More than ever before in our nation's history, education is not only the ticket to economic success, but also to basic survival. Whereas a high school dropout had two chances out of three of getting a job 20 years ago, today he or she has less than one chance out of three, and the job he or she can get pays less than half of what would have been earned 20 years earlier (WT Grant Foundation, 1988). The effects of dropping out are much worse for young people of color than for whites. In 1993, a recent school dropout who was black had only a one in four chance of being employed, whereas the odds for his or her white counterpart were about 50% (NCES, 1995, p. 88). Even recent graduates from high school struggle to find jobs. Among African-American high school graduates not enrolled in college, only 42% were employed in 1993, as compared with 72% of white graduates. Those who do not succeed in school are becoming part of a growing underclass, cut off from productive engagement in society. In addition, working class young people and adults who were prepared for the disappearing jobs of the past teeter on the brink of downward social mobility.

Because the economy can no longer absorb many unskilled workers at decent wages, lack of education is increasingly linked to crime and welfare dependency. Women who have not finished high school are much more likely than others to be on welfare, while men are much more likely to be in prison. National investments in the last decade have tipped heavily toward incarceration rather than education. Nationwide, during the 1980s, federal, state, and local expenditures for corrections grew by over 900%, and for prosecution and legal services by more than 1000% (Miller, 1997), while prison populations more than doubled (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1996, p. 219). During the same decade, per pupil expenditures for schools grew by only about 26% in real dollar terms, and much less in cities (NCES, 1994). The situation is worse in some parts of the country. While schools in California have experienced continuous cutbacks over the last decade, the prison population there has increased by more than 300%.

In 1993, there were more African-American citizens on probation, in jail, in prison, or on parole (1,985,000) than there were in college (1,412,000) (U.S. Department of Commerce, table numbers 281 and 354, pp. 181 and 221). Increased incarceration, and its disproportionate effects upon the African-American community, are a function of new criminal justice policies and ongoing police discrimination (Miller, 1997) as well as lack of access to education. More than half the adult prison population has literacy skills below those required by the labor market (Barton & Coley, 1996), and nearly 40% of adjudicated juvenile delinquents have treatable learning disabilities that went undiagnosed in the schools (Gemignani, 1994).

Meanwhile, schools have changed slowly. Most are still organized to prepare only about 20% of their students for “thinking work” —those students who are tracked very early into gifted and talented, “advanced,” or honors courses. These opportunities are least available to African-American, Latino, and Native American students. As a consequence of structural inequalities in access to knowledge and resources, students from racial and ethnic “minority” groups in the United States face persistent and profound barriers to educational opportunity. As I describe below, schools that serve large numbers of students of color are least likely to offer the kind of curriculum and teaching needed to meet the new standards being enacted across the states and to help students attain the skills needed in a knowledge work economy. In most states, schools serving minority and low-income students lack the courses, materials, equipment, and qualified teachers that would give students access to the education they will need to participate in today's and tomorrow's world.


While the demands for knowledge and skill are growing, the gap in educational opportunity between majority and minority students has been widening. Although overall educational attainment for black Americans increased steadily between 1960 and 1990, this trend is reversing in some states that have imposed graduation exams without improving opportunities to learn. By 1995, 74% of black Americans had completed four or more years of high school—up from only 20% in 1960. However, dropout rates have been increasing for black male students since 1994. Recent evidence from individual states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia where exit exams have been instituted indicates that dropout and pushout rates have increased substantially for African-American and Hispanic students during the 1990s (Haney, 1999).

On national assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, and science, minority students' performance lags behind that of white students, and the gap has widened in most areas during the 1990s. The situation in many urban school systems deteriorated throughout the 1980s and 1990s as drops in per pupil expenditures have accompanied tax cuts while immigration and enrollments have grown. Urban schools serve increased numbers of students who do not speak English as their native language and growing proportions requiring special educational services. These students are increasingly served by growing numbers of unqualified teachers who have been hired since the late 1980s.

In addition, many urban systems have focused their curricula more on rote learning of “basic” skills than on problem solving, thoughtful examination of serious texts and ideas, or assignments requiring frequent and extended writing (Cooper & Sherk, 1989; Darling-Hammond, 1997). As new tests in many states (and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1994) focus more on higher-order skills, problem solving, analytic and writing ability, they diverge from the lower-level skills taught in many texts and tested by widely used multiple choice examinations. Students whose education is guided mostly by workbooks compatible with basic skills tests find themselves at a growing disadvantage when they confront the more challenging expectations of new standards and the assessments that accompany them.


The concentration of minority students in high-minority schools facilitates inequality. Nearly two-thirds of “minority” students attend predominantly minority schools, and one-third of black students attend intensely segregated schools (90% or more minority enrollment), most of which are in central cities (Schofield, 1991, p. 336). By 1993, 55% of all students in central city schools were black or Hispanic (National Center for Educational Statistics, NCES, 1995, p. 121). As Taylor and Piche (1991) noted:

Inequitable systems of school finance inflict disproportionate harm on minority and economically disadvantaged students. On an inter-state basis, such students are concentrated in states, primarily in the South, that have the lowest capacities to finance public education. On an intra-state basis, many of the states with the widest disparities in educational expenditures are large industrial states. In these states, many minorities and economically disadvantaged students are located in property-poor urban districts which fare the worst in educational expenditures. In addition, in several states economically disadvantaged students, white and black, are concentrated in rural districts which suffer from fiscal inequity (pp. xi–xii).

Not only do funding systems and tax policies leave most urban districts with fewer resources than their suburban neighbors, but schools with high concentrations of “minority” students receive fewer resources than other schools within these districts. And tracking systems exacerbate these inequalities by segregating many “minority” students within schools, allocating still fewer educational opportunities to them at the classroom level. In their review of resource allocation studies, MacPhail-Wilcox and King (1986) summarized the resulting situation as follows:

School expenditure levels correlate positively with student socioeconomic status and negatively with educational need when school size and grade level are controlled statistically…Teachers with higher salaries are concentrated in high-income and low-minority schools. Furthermore, pupil-teacher ratios are higher in schools with larger minority and low-income student populations… Educational units with higher proportions of low-income and minority students are allocated fewer fiscal and educational resources than are more affluent educational units, despite the probability that these students have substantially greater need for both (p. 425).

These inequalities are increasingly the subject of legal action. The State of New York provides a recent example. Studies have found that by virtually any resource measure—state and local dollars per pupil, student-teacher ratios and student-staff ratios, class sizes, teacher experience, and teacher qualifications— districts with greater proportions of poor and minority students receive fewer resources than others (Berne, 1995). In January 2001, the New York State Supreme Court declared the funding system unconstitutional because it denies students in high-need, low-spending districts like New York City the opportunities to learn needed to meet the state's standards, including well-qualified teachers and curriculum supports (Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York). A similar suit is now pending in the Superior Court of California (Williams v. State of California).

A critical problem is that shortages of funds make it difficult for urban and poor rural schools to compete in the marketplace for qualified teachers. When districts do not find qualified teachers, they assign the least able individuals to the students with the least political clout. In 1990, for example, the Los Angeles City School District was sued by students in predominantly minority schools because their schools were not only overcrowded and less well funded than other schools, they were also disproportionately staffed by inexperienced and unprepared teachers hired on emergency credentials (Rodriguez et al. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles #C611358. Consent decree filed August 12, 1992). In 1999, students in California's predominantly minority schools were 10 times more likely to have uncertified teachers than those in predominantly white schools (Shields et al., 1999).

A growing body of research suggests that inequitable distributions of qualified teachers are a major cause of the achievement gap. Recent studies have found that differential teacher effectiveness is an extremely strong determinant of differences in student learning, far outweighing the effects of differences in class size and heterogenity. Students who are assigned to several ineffective teachers in a row have significantly lower achievement gains—creating differences of as much as 50 percentile points over three years—than those who are assigned to several highly effective teachers in a row (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). These studies also find evidence of bias in assignment of students to teachers of different effectiveness levels, including indications that African American students are nearly twice as likely to be assigned to the most ineffective teachers and about half as likely to be assigned to the most effective teachers.

Analyzing a data set covering 900 Texas school districts, Ronald Ferguson (1991) found that the single most important measurable cause of increased student learning was teacher expertise, measured by teacher performance on a state certification exam, along with teacher experience and master's degrees. Together these variables accounted for about 40% of the measured variance in student test scores. Holding socioeconomic status (SES) constant, the wide variation in teachers' qualifications in Texas accounted for almost all of the variation in black and white students' test scores. That is, after controlling for SES, black students' achievement would have nearly equaled that of whites if they had been assigned equally qualified teachers.

Ferguson also found that class size, at the critical point of a teacher/student ratio of 1:18, was a statistically significant determinant of student outcomes (Ferguson, 1991), as was small school size. Other data also indicate that black students are more likely to attend large schools than white students (Paterson Institute, 1996), with much larger than average class sizes (NCES, 1997a, p. A-119), and confirm that smaller schools and classes make a difference for student achievement (for a review, see Darling-Hammond, 1997).

Ferguson repeated this analysis in Alabama, and still found sizable influences of teacher expertise and smaller class sizes on student achievement gains in reading and mathematics (Ferguson & Ladd, 1996). They found that 31% of the predicted difference in mathematics achievement between districts in the top and bottom quartiles was explained by teacher qualifications and class sizes, while 29.5% was explained by poverty, race, and parent education.

These findings are confirmed elsewhere. For example, in North Carolina, Strauss and Sawyer (1986) found a strong influence on average school district test performance of teachers' average scores on the National Teacher Examinations (NTE) measuring subject matter and teaching knowledge. After taking account of community wealth and other resources, teachers' test scores had a strikingly large effect on students' success on the state competency examinations: a 1% increase in teacher quality (as measured by NTE scores) was associated with a 3% to 5% decline in the percentage of students failing the exam. The authors' conclusion is similar to Ferguson's:

FIGURE 1. Cumulative effects of teacher effectiveness.


Cumulative effects of teacher effectiveness. Student test scores (5th grade math) by effectiveness level of teachers over a three-year period, for two metropolitan school systems. SOURCE: W.L.Sanders and J.C.Rivers. Cumulative and Residual Effects of (more...)

Of the inputs which are potentially policy-controllable (teacher quality, teacher numbers via the pupil-teacher ratio and capital stock) our analysis indicates quite clearly that improving the quality of teachers in the classroom will do more for students who are most educationally at risk, those prone to fail, than reducing the class size or improving the capital stock by any reasonable margin which would be available to policy makers (p. 47).

These findings are reinforced by a recent review of 60 production function studies, which found that teacher education, ability, and experience—along with small schools and lower teacher-pupil ratios—are associated with significant increases in student achievement (Greenwald, Hedges, & Laine, 1996). In this study's estimate of the achievement gains associated with expenditure increments, spending on teacher education swamped other variables as the most productive investment for schools.

FIGURE 2. Effects of educational investments: size of increase in student achievement for every $500 spent on: Achievement gains were calculated as standard deviation units on a range of achievement tests in the 60 studies reviewed.


Effects of educational investments: size of increase in student achievement for every $500 spent on: Achievement gains were calculated as standard deviation units on a range of achievement tests in the 60 studies reviewed.


Unfortunately, policymakers have nearly always been willing to fill teaching vacancies by lowering standards so that people who have had little or no preparation for teaching can be hired, especially if their clients are minority and low-income students. Although this practice is often excused by the presumption that virtually anyone can figure out how to teach, research consistently shows that fully prepared and certified teachers—those with both subject matter knowledge and knowledge of teaching and learning—are more highly rated and more successful with students than teachers without full preparation (Druva & Anderson, 1983; Greenberg, 1983; Evertson, Hawley, & Zlotnik, 1985; Ashton & Crocker, 1986, 1987; Darling-Hammond, 1992). As Evertson and colleagues (1985) concluded:

(T)he available research suggests that among students who become teachers, those enrolled in formal preservice preparation programs are more likely to be effective than those who do not have such training. Moreover, almost all well planned and executed efforts within teacher preparation programs to teach students specific knowledge or skills seem to succeed, at least in the short run (p. 8).

A number of studies have found that teachers who enter the teaching profession without full preparation are less able to plan and redirect instruction to meet students' needs (and less aware of the need to do so), less skilled in implementing instruction, less able to anticipate students' knowledge and potential difficulties, and less likely to see it as their job to do so, often blaming students if their teaching is not successful (Bledsoe, Cox, & Burnham, 1967; Copley, 1974; Gomez & Grobe, 1990; Grossman, 1989; 1990; Bents & Bents, 1990; Rottenberg & Berliner, 1990;). Most important, their students learn at lower levels (See figure 3).

FIGURE 3. Effects on student achievement of teacher certification in mathematics.


Effects on student achievement of teacher certification in mathematics. ANOVA results: *p < .01 **p < .001 SOURCE: P.Hawk, C.Coble, and M.Swanson. Certification: It Does Matter. Journal of Teacher Education, 36 (3) May–June 1985; (more...)

Teacher expertise and curriculum quality are interrelated, because expert teachers are a prerequisite for the successful implementation of challenging curriculum. Teachers who are well-prepared are better able to use teaching strategies that respond to students' needs and learning styles and that encourage higher-order learning (Peikes, 1967–1968; Skipper & Quantz, 1987; Hansen, 1988). Since the novel tasks required for problem solving are more difficult to manage than the routine tasks associated with rote learning, lack of knowledge about how to manage an active, inquiry-oriented classroom can lead teachers to turn to passive tactics that “dumb down” the curriculum, busying students with workbooks rather than complex tasks that require more skill to orchestrate (Carter & Doyle, 1987; Doyle, 1986; Cooper & Sherk, 1989). Teacher education is also related to the use of teaching strategies that encourage higher-order learning and the use of strategies responsive to students' needs and learning styles. Thus, policies that resolve shortages in poor districts by hiring unprepared teachers serve only to exacerbate the inequalities low-income and minority children experience.

Access to Good Teaching

In “Closing the Divide,” Robert Dreeben (1987) described the results of his study of reading instruction and outcomes for 300 black and white first graders across seven schools in the Chicago area. He found that differences in reading outcomes among students were almost entirely explained not by socioeconomic status or race, but by the quality of instruction the students received:

Our evidence shows that the level of learning responds strongly to the quality of instruction: having and using enough time, covering a substantial amount of rich curricular material, and matching instruction appropriately to the ability levels of groups…When black and white children of comparable ability experience the same instruction, they do about equally well, and this is true when the instruction is excellent in quality and when it is inadequate (p. 34).

However, the study also found that the quality of instruction received by African-American students was, on average, much lower than that received by white students, thus creating a racial gap in aggregate achievement at the end of first grade. In fact, the highest ability group in Dreeben's sample was in a school in a low-income, African-American neighborhood. These students, though, learned less during first grade than their lower-aptitude white counterparts because their teacher was unable to provide the quality instruction this talented group deserved.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has documented that the qualifications and training of students' teachers are among the correlates of reading achievement. Students of teachers who are fully certified, who have master's degrees, and who have had professional coursework in literature-based instruction do better on reading assessments. Furthermore, teachers who have had more professional coursework are more likely to use an approach that integrates literature and writing, which is associated with stronger achievement. For example, teachers with more staff development hours in reading are much more likely to use a wide variety of books, newspapers, and materials from other subject areas and to engage students in regular writing, all of which are associated with higher reading achievement. They are also less likely to use reading kits, basal readers, and workbooks which are associated with lower levels of reading achievement (NAEP, 1994).

Curricular differences like these are widespread, and they explain much of the disparity between the achievement of white and minority students and between those of higher- and lower-income levels (Oakes, 1985; Lee & Bryk, 1988). When students of similar backgrounds and initial achievement levels are exposed to more and less challenging curriculum material, those given the richer curriculum opportunities outperform those placed in less challenging classes (Alexander & McDill, 1976; Oakes, 1985; Gamoran & Behrends, 1987).

Most studies have estimated effects statistically based on natural occurrences of different tracking policies. However, one study that randomly assigned 7th grade “at-risk” students to remedial, average, and honors mathematics classes found that at the end of the year, the at-risk students who took the honors class offering a pre-algebra curriculum outperformed all other students of similar backgrounds (Peterson, 1989).

Another study of African-American high school youth randomly placed in public housing in the Chicago suburbs rather than in the city, found similar results. Compared to their comparable city-placed peers who were of equivalent income and initial academic attainment, the students who were enabled to attend largely white and better-funded suburban schools had better educational outcomes across many dimensions. They were substantially more likely to have the opportunity to take challenging courses, receive additional academic help, graduate on time, attend college, and secure good jobs (Kaufman & Rosenbaum, 1992).

These examples are drawn from carefully controlled studies that confirm what many other studies have suggested. Much of the difference in school achievement found between African-American students and others is due to the effects of substantially different school opportunities, and in particular, greatly disparate access to high-quality teachers and teaching (Barr & Dreeben, 1983; College Board, 1985; Dreeben & Gamoran, 1986; Dreeben & Barr, 1987; Oakes, 1990; Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 1992).

The Unequal Distribution Of Teachers

Minority and low-income students in urban settings are most likely to find themselves in classrooms staffed by inadequately prepared, inexperienced, and ill-qualified teachers because funding inequities, distributions of local power, labor market conditions, and dysfunctional hiring practices conspire to produce teacher shortages of which they bear the brunt. By every measure of qualifications, unqualified and underprepared teachers continue to be found disproportionately in schools serving greater numbers of low-income or minority students (NCES, 1997a). In 1994, just over 20% of newly hired public school teachers were hired without having met regular certification requirements (NCTAF, 1997). The vast majority of these teachers were assigned to the most disadvantaged schools in central city and poor rural school districts.

Districts with the greatest concentrations of poor children, minority children, and children of immigrants are also those where incoming teachers are least likely to have learned about up-to-date teaching methods or about how children grow, learn, and develop—and what to do if they are having difficulties. In addition, when faced with shortages, districts often hire substitutes, assign teachers outside their fields of qualification, expand class sizes, or cancel course offerings. These strategies are used most frequently in schools serving large numbers of minority students (NCES, 1997a; NCTAF, 1997). No matter what strategies are adopted, the quality of instruction suffers.

This situation is partly a function of real shortages, but it is also due to urban district hiring practices that are often cumbersome, poorly managed, insensitive to teacher qualifications, and delayed by seniority transfer rules and a variety of other self-inflicted procedures (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Furthermore, since many of the more expert, experienced teachers transfer to more desirable schools and districts when they are able, new teachers and those without training are typically given assignments in the most disadvantaged schools that offer the fewest supports (Wise, Darling-Hammond, & Berry, 1987; Murnane et al., 1991). Because they confront challenging assignments without mentoring or other help, attrition rates for new teachers, especially in cities, average 30% or more over the first five years of teaching (Grissmer & Kirby, 1987; Wise, Darling-Hammond, & Berry, 1987; NCES, 1997b).

This adds additional problems of staff instability to the already difficult circumstances in which central city youth attend school. Where these practices persist, many children in central city schools are taught by a parade of short-term substitute teachers, inexperienced teachers without support, and underqualified teachers who are not really familiar with either their subject matter or effective methods. The California Commission on the Teaching Profession (1985) concluded that disproportionate numbers of minority and poor students are taught throughout their entire school careers by the least qualified teachers. This sets up the school failure that society predicts for them.

Oakes' (1990) nationwide study of the distribution of mathematics and science opportunities confirmed these pervasive patterns. Based on teacher experience, certification status, preparation in the discipline, degrees, self-confidence, and teacher and principal perceptions of competence, it is clear that low-income and minority students have less contact with the best-qualified science and mathematics teachers. Students in high-minority schools have only a 50% chance of being taught by a math or science teacher who is certified at all, and an even lower chance of being taught by teachers who are fully qualified for their teaching assignment by virtue of the subject area(s) they are prepared to teach. Oakes concluded:

Our evidence lends considerable support to the argument that low-income, minority, and inner-city students have fewer opportunities…They have considerably less access to science and mathematics knowledge at school, fewer material resources, less-engaging learning activities in their classrooms, and less-qualified teachers… (p. x–xi).

Access to High-Quality Curriculum

In addition to being taught by teachers less qualified than those of their white and suburban counterparts, urban and minority students face dramatic differences in courses, curriculum materials, and equipment. Unequal access to high-level courses and challenging curriculum explains much of the difference in achievement between minority students and white students. For example, analyses of data from the High School and Beyond surveys demonstrate dramatic differences among students of various racial and ethnic groups in course taking in such areas as mathematics, science, and foreign languages (Pelavin & Kane, 1990). These data also demonstrate that for students of all racial and ethnic groups, course taking is strongly related to achievement. For students with similar course taking records, achievement test score differences by race or ethnicity narrow substantially (Jones, 1984; College Board, 1985, p. 38; Moore & Smith, 1985; Jones et al., 1986).

One source of inequality is the fact that high-minority schools are much less likely to offer advanced and college preparatory courses in mathematics and science than are schools that serve affluent and largely white populations of students (Matthews, 1984; Oakes, 1990). Schools serving predominantly minority and poor populations offer fewer advanced courses and more remedial courses in academic subjects, and they have smaller academic tracks and larger vocational programs (NCES, 1985; Rock et al., 1985). The size and rigor of college preparatory programs within schools vary with the race and socioeconomic status of school populations (California State Department of Education, 1984). As plaintiffs noted in the New Jersey school finance case, wealthy and predominantly white Montclair offers foreign languages at the preschool level, while poor and predominantly black Paterson does not offer any until high school— and then, relatively few. And while 20% of 11th and 12th graders in wealthy Moorestown participate in Advanced Placement courses, none are even offered in any school in poor and predominantly black Camden and East Orange (ETS, 1991, p. 9).

When high-minority, low-income schools offer any advanced or college preparatory courses, they offer them to only a very tiny fraction of students. Thus, at the high school level, African American, Hispanics, and Native Americans have traditionally been underrepresented in academic programs and overrepresented in general education or vocational education programs, where they receive fewer courses in areas such as English, mathematics, and science (College Board, 1985). Even among the college-bound, non-Asian minority students take fewer and less demanding mathematics, science, and foreign language courses (Pelavin & Kane, 1990).

The unavailability of teachers who could teach these upper-level courses, or who can successfully teach heterogeneous groups of students, reinforces these inequalities in access to high-quality curricula. Tracking persists in the face of growing evidence that it does not substantially benefit high achievers and tends to put low achievers at a serious disadvantage (Kulik & Kulik, 1982; Oakes, 1985; 1986; Slavin, 1990; Hoffer, 1992), in part because good teaching is a scarce resource, and thus must be allocated. Scarce resources tend to get allocated to the students whose parents, advocates, or representatives have the most political clout. This results, not entirely but disproportionately, in the most highly qualified teachers teaching the most enriched curricula to the most advantaged students. Evidence suggests that teachers themselves are tracked, with those judged to be the most competent, experienced, or with the highest status assigned to the top tracks (Rosenbaum, 1976; Finley, 1984; Davis, 1986; Oakes, 1986; Talbert, 1990; NCTAF, 1996).

Tracking in U.S. schools is much more extensive at much earlier grade levels than in most other countries. Starting in elementary schools with the designation of instructional groups and programs based on test scores and recommendations, it becomes highly formalized by junior high school. The result of this practice is that challenging curricula are rationed to a very small proportion of students, and far fewer of our students ever encounter the types of curricula that students in other countries typically experience (McKnight et al., 1987; Usiskin, 1987; Useem, 1990; Wheelock, 1992).

Although test scores and prior educational opportunities partially explain these differential placements, race and socioeconomic status play a distinct role. Even after test scores are controlled, race and socioeconomic status determine assignments to high school honors courses (Gamoran, 1992), as well as vocational and academic programs and more or less challenging courses within them (Useem, 1990; Oakes, 1992). This is true in part because of prior placements of students in upper tracks in earlier grades, in part due to counselors' views that they should advise students in ways that are “realistic” about their futures, and in part because of the greater effectiveness of parent interventions in tracking decisions for higher-SES students (Moore & Davenport, 1988).

From “gifted and talented” programs at the elementary level through advanced courses in secondary schools, teachers who are generally the most skilled offer rich, challenging curricula to select groups of students, based on the theory that only a few students can benefit from such curricula. Yet the distinguishing feature of such programs, particularly at the elementary level, is not their difficulty, but their quality. Students in these programs are given opportunities to integrate ideas across fields of study. They have opportunities to think, write, create, and develop projects. They are challenged to explore. Though virtually all students would benefit from being similarly challenged, the opportunity for this sort of schooling remains acutely restricted.

Meanwhile, students placed in lower tracks are exposed to a limited, rote-oriented curriculum and ultimately achieve less than students of similar aptitude who are placed in academic programs or untracked classes (Gamoran & Mare, 1989; Oakes, 1985, 1990; Gamoran, 1990). Teacher interaction with students in lower track classes is less motivating, less supportive, and less demanding of higher-order reasoning and responses (Good & Brophy, 1987). These interactions are also less academically oriented, and more likely to focus on behavioral criticisms, especially for minority students (Oakes, 1985; Eckstrom & Villegas, 1991). Presentations are less clear and less focused on higher-order cognitive goals (Oakes, 1985).

In addition, many studies have found that students placed in the lowest tracks or in remedial programs—disproportionately low-income and minority students—are most apt to experience instruction geared only to multiple-choice tests, working at a low cognitive level on test-oriented tasks that are profoundly disconnected from the skills they need to learn. Rarely are they given the opportunity to talk about what they know, to read real books, to write, or to construct and solve problems in mathematics, science, or other subjects (Oakes, 1985; Davis, 1986; Trimble & Sinclair, 1986; Cooper & Sherk, 1989).


The common presumption about educational inequality is that it resides primarily in those students who come to school with inadequate capacities to benefit from what education the school has to offer. The fact that U.S. schools are structured such that students routinely receive dramatically unequal learning opportunities based on their race and social status is simply not widely recognized. If the academic outcomes for minority and low-income children are to change, reforms must alter the caliber and quantity of learning opportunities they encounter. These efforts must include equalization of financial resources, changes in curriculum and testing policies, and improvements in the supply of highly qualified teachers to all students.

Resource Equalization

Progress in equalizing resources to students will require attention to inequalities at all levels—between states, among districts, among schools within districts, and among students differentially placed in classrooms, courses, and tracks that offer substantially disparate opportunities to learn. As a consequence of systematic inequalities at each of these levels, minority and low-income students are frequently “at risk” not from their homes or family factors but from the major shortcomings of the schools they attend.

Special programs such as compensatory or bilingual education will never be effective at remedying underachievement as long as these services are layered on a system that so poorly educates minority and low-income children to begin with. The presumption that “the schools are fine, it's the children who need help” is flawed. The schools serving large concentrations of low-income and minority students are generally not fine, and many of their problems originate with district and state policies and practices that fund them inadequately, send them incompetent staff, require inordinate attention to arcane administrative requirements that fragment educational programs and drain resources from classrooms, and preclude the adoption of more promising curriculum and teaching strategies.

Current initiatives to create special labels and programs for “at-risk” children and youth—including mass summer school programs and mandatory Saturday classes for the hundreds of thousands of students who are threatened with grade retention under new promotion rules—are unlikely to succeed if they do not attend to the structural conditions of schools that place children at risk. In the pursuit of equity, our goal should be to develop strategies that improve the core practices of schooling rather than layering additional programs and regulations on foundations that are already faulty. The pressures to respond to special circumstances with special categorical programs are great, and the tradition of succumbing to those pressures in an add-on fashion is well established, in education as in other areas of national life. But special programs, with all their accoutrements of new rules and procedures, separate budgets, and fragmented, pull-out programs will be counterproductive as long as the status quo remains unchanged in more significant ways.

As the 1992 interim report of an independent commission on Chapter 1 observed: “Given the inequitable distribution of state and local resources, the current notion that Chapter 1 provides supplemental aid to disadvantaged children added to a level playing field is a fiction” (Commission on Chapter 1, 1992, p. 4). The Commission proposed that each state be held accountable for assuring comparability in “vital services” among all its districts as well as in all schools within each district. Among these vital services, perhaps the most important is highly qualified teachers, not just for specific Chapter 1 services but for all classrooms.

Ferguson's (1991) recommendation that equalization focus on district capacity to hire high-quality teachers is an important one. In addition to the weight of evidence indicating the central importance of qualified teachers to student learning, there is real-world experience with the positive effects on teacher quality and distribution of such policies. When Connecticut raised and equalized beginning teacher salaries under its 1986 Education Enhancement Act, shortages of teachers (including those that had plagued urban areas) evaporated. By 1989, most teaching fields showed surpluses. The state raised standards for teacher education and licensing, initiated scholarships and forgivable loans to recruit high-need teachers into the profession (including teachers in shortage fields, those who would teach in high-need locations, and minority teachers), created a mentoring and assessment program for all beginning teachers, and invested money in high-quality professional development, with special aid to low-achieving districts. The state also developed a low-stakes, performance-oriented assessment program focused on higher-order thinking and performance skills, which is used to provide information to schools and districts, but not to punish children or teachers. By 1998, Connecticut had surpassed all other states in 4th grade reading and mathematics achievement on the NAEP and scored at the top in 8th grade mathematics, science, and writing. Although Connecticut still has an achievement gap it is working to close, black students in Connecticut score significantly higher than their counterparts elsewhere in the county (Baron, 1999; Wilson, Darling-Hammond, & Berry, 2000).

The new wave of school finance lawsuits that are challenging both within state and within district resource allocation disparities are also promising. These suits are increasingly able to demonstrate how access to concrete learning opportunities is impaired by differential access to money, and how these learning opportunities translate into academic achievement for students. As standards are used to articulate clearer conceptions of what students need to learn to function in today's society and what schools need to do to support these levels of learning, lawsuits like ones recently won in Alabama and New York may be linked to definitions of the quality of education that is “adequate” to meet the state's expectations for student achievement. Such cases are requiring remedies that link levels of funding to minimum standards of learning and teaching. As suits brought on the adequacy theory establish that learning experiences depend on resources and influence outcomes, they establish a principle of “opportunity to learn” that could allow states to define a curriculum entitlement that becomes the basis for both funding and review of school practices.

Opportunity to Learn Standards

The idea of opportunity to learn standards was first articulated by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing (NCEST), which argued for student performance standards but acknowledged they would result in greater inequality if not accompanied by policies ensuring access to resources, including appropriate instructional materials and well-prepared teachers (NCEST, 1992, E12–E13). The Commission's Assessment Task Force proposed that states collect evidence on the extent to which schools and districts provide opportunity to learn the curricula implied by standards as a prerequisite to using tests for school graduation or other decisions (NCEST, 1992, F17–F18).

Opportunity-to-learn standards would establish, for example, that if a state's curriculum frameworks and assessments outlined standards for science learning that require laboratory work and computers, specific coursework, and particular knowledge for teaching, resources must be allocated and policies must be fashioned to provide for these entitlements. Such a strategy would leverage both school improvement and school equity reform, providing a basis for state legislation or litigation where opportunities to learn were not adequately funded. Opportunity-to-learn standards would define a floor of core resources, coupled with incentives for schools to work toward professional standards of practice that support high-quality learning opportunities. Such standards would provide a basis for:

  • state legislation and, if necessary, litigation that supports greater equity in funding and in the distribution of qualified teachers;
  • information about the nature of the teaching and learning opportunities made available to students in different districts and schools across the state;
  • incentives for states and school districts to create policies that ensure adequate and equitable resources, curriculum opportunities, and teaching to all schools;
  • a school review process that helps schools and districts engage in self-assessments and external reviews of practice in light of standards; and
  • identification of schools that need additional support or intervention to achieve adequate opportunities to learn for their students.

Curriculum and Assessment Reform

As noted above, the curriculum offered to many students—and to most African American students—in U.S. schools is geared primarily toward lower-order “rote” skills—memorizing pieces of information and conducting simple operations based on formulas or rules—that are not sufficient for the demands of modern life or for the new standards being proposed and enacted by states and national associations. These new standards will require students to be able to engage in independent analysis and problem solving, extensive research and writing, use of new technologies, and various strategies for accessing and using resources in new situations. Major changes in curriculum and resources will be needed to ensure that these kinds of activities are commonplace in the classrooms of minority students and others.

These efforts to create a “thinking curriculum” for all students are important to individual futures and our national welfare. They are unlikely to pay off, however, unless other critical changes are made in curriculum, in the ways students are tracked for instruction, and the ways teachers are prepared and supported. Although mounting evidence indicates that low-tracked students are disadvantaged by current practice and that high-ability students do not benefit more from homogeneous classrooms (Slavin, 1990), the long-established American tracking system will be difficult to reform until there is an adequate supply of well-trained teachers—teachers who are both prepared to teach the more advanced curriculum that U.S. schools now fail to offer most students and to assume the challenging task of teaching many kinds of students with diverse needs, interests, aptitudes, and learning styles in integrated classroom settings.

Other important changes concern the types and uses of achievement tests in U.S. schools. As a 1990 study of the implementation of California's new mathematics curriculum framework points out, when a curriculum reform aimed at problem solving and higher-order thinking skills encounters an already mandated rote-oriented basic skills testing program, the tests win out (Cohen et al., 1990; Darling-Hammond, 1990b). As one teacher put it:

Teaching for understanding is what we are supposed to be doing… (but) the bottom line here is that all they really want to know is how are these kids doing on the tests? …They want me to teach in a way that they can't test, except that I'm held accountable to the test It's a Catch 22… (Wilson, 1990, p. 318).

Students in schools that organize most of their efforts around the kinds of low-level learning represented by commercially developed multiple-choice tests will be profoundly disadvantaged when they encounter more rigorous evaluations that require greater analysis, writing, and production of elaborated answers. Initiatives in some states (e.g., Connecticut, Kentucky) and cities (e.g., New York, San Diego) to develop more performance-oriented assessments that develop higher-order skills may begin to address this problem.

An equally important issue is how tests are used. If new assessments are used, like current tests are, primarily for sorting, screening, and tracking, the quality of education for minority students is unlikely to improve. Qualitatively better education will come only from developing and using assessment not for punishment but as a tool for identifying student strengths and needs as a basis for adapting instruction more successfully (Glaser, 1981, 1990). Robert Glaser (1990) argued that schools must shift from an approach “characterized by minimal variation in the conditions for learning” in which “a narrow range of instructional options and a limited number of paths to success are available,” (p.16) to one in which “conceptions of learning and modes of teaching are adjusted to individuals—their backgrounds, talents, interests, and the nature of their past performances and experiences” (p. 17).

The outcomes of the current wave of curriculum and assessment reforms will depend in large measure on the extent to which developers and users of new standards and tests use them to improve teaching and learning rather than merely reinforcing our tendencies to sort and select those who will get high-quality education from those who will not. They will also need to pursue broader reforms to improve and equalize access to educational resources and support the professional development of teachers, so that new standards and tests are used to inform more skillful and adaptive teaching that enables more successful learning for all students.

Investments in Quality Teaching

A key corollary to this analysis is that improved opportunities for minority students will rest, in large part, on policies that professionalize teaching by increasing the knowledge base for teaching and ensuring mastery of this knowledge by all teachers permitted to practice. This means providing all teachers with a stronger understanding of how children learn and develop, how a variety of curricular and instructional strategies can address their needs, and how changes in school and classroom practices can support their growth and achievement.

There are two reasons for this approach. First, the professionalization of an occupation raises the floor below which no entrants will be admitted to practice. It eliminates practices that allow untrained entrants to practice disproportionately on underserved and poorly protected clients. Second, professionalization increases the overall knowledge base for the occupation, thus improving the quality of services for all clients, especially those most in need of high-quality teaching (Wise & Darling-Hammond, 1987; Darling-Hammond, 1990a).

The students who have, in general, the poorest opportunities to learn—those attending the inner-city schools that are compelled by the current incentive structure to hire disproportionate numbers of substitute teachers, uncertified teachers, and inexperienced teachers and that lack resources for mitigating the uneven distribution of good teaching—are the students who will benefit most from measures that raise the standards of practice for all teachers. They will also benefit from targeted policies that provide quality preparation programs and financial aid for highly qualified prospective teachers who will teach in central cities and poor rural areas. Providing equity in the distribution of teacher quality requires changing policies and long-standing incentive structures in education so that shortages of trained teachers are overcome, and that schools serving low-income and minority students are not disadvantaged by lower salaries and poorer working conditions in the bidding war for good teachers.

Building and sustaining a well-prepared teaching force will require local, state, and federal initiatives. To recruit an adequate supply of teachers, states and localities will need to upgrade teachers' salaries to levels competitive with those of college graduates in other occupations, who currently earn 20% to 50% more, depending on the field. States should also strengthen teacher education and certification. In almost all states, teacher education is more poorly funded than other university departments (Ebmeier, Twombly, & Teeter, 1990). It has long been used as a revenue producer for programs that train engineers, accountants, lawyers, and doctors. Rather than bemoaning the quality of teacher training, policy makers should invest in its improvement, require schools of education to become accredited, and insist that teachers pass performance examinations for licensing that demonstrate they can teach well. Shortages should be met by enhanced incentives rather than by lowering standards, especially for those who teach children in central cities and poor rural schools.

The federal government can play a leadership role in providing an adequate supply of well-qualified teachers just as it has in providing an adequate supply of qualified physicians. When shortages of physicians were a major problem more than 30 years ago, Congress passed the 1963 Health Professions Education Assistance Act to support and improve the caliber of medical training, to create and strengthen teaching hospitals, to provide scholarships and loans to medical students, and to create incentives for physicians to train in shortage specialties and to locate in underserved areas. Similarly, federal initiatives in education should seek to:


Recruit new teachers, especially in shortage fields and in shortage locations, through scholarships and forgivable loans for high-quality teacher education.


Strengthen and improve teachers' preparation through improvement incentive grants to schools of education and supports for licensing reform.


Improve teacher retention and effectiveness by improving clinical training and support during the beginning teaching stage when 30% leave. This would include funding mentoring programs for new teachers in which they receive structured coaching from expert veterans.

If the interaction between teachers and students is the most important aspect of effective schooling, then reducing inequality in learning has to rely on policies that provide equal access to competent, well-supported teachers. The public education system ought to be able to guarantee that every child who is forced by law to go to school is taught by someone who is knowledgeable, competent, and caring. That is real accountability. As Carl Grant (1989) put it:

Teachers who perform high-quality work in urban schools know that, despite reform efforts and endless debates, it is meaningful curricula and dedicated and knowledgeable teachers that make the difference in the education of urban students (p. 770).

When it comes to equalizing opportunities for students to learn, that is the bottom line.


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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK223640


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