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Some Gaps Count More Than Others

Some Gaps Count More Than Others

But a look at the data on income inequality-especially through the prism of AYP-reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of the NCLB legislation. In 1991, the median household income for black families was about 58 percent of white income. Hispanic income was about 70 percent. (See table.) If we applied the "logic" of AYP to this key measure of how our economy works, the income gap for blacks would have had to narrow by 3.5 percent each year to pull even within 12 years-the same time frame schools have been given to equalize test scores. Hispanics, starting with a smaller gap, would have had to close the gap by 2.5 percent a year.

If you compare this to how the economy actually performed between 1991 and 2002, a period of supposedly unprecedented economic growth, you'll find the U.S. economy would not have met its "AYP targets for income equality" for any year for either group. At the end of 12 years, the gap between black and white incomes had narrowed only a pitiful 3.7 percent; for Hispanics the gap was just .4 percent less than it was in 1991.

If we lived in an alternate universe where income equality really was a goal of federal economic policy, and an NCLB-like system of sanctions put pressure on the titans of industry and commerce to attain such a lofty goal, what might be appropriate remedies for such a dismal performance? "Corrective action?"-to borrow the language of NCLB sanctions. Economic restructuring? Reconstitution of our major corporations? How about "state takeover?"

The point, of course, is that there is no indicator of equality, including household income, child poverty rates, health-care coverage, home ownership, or school spending, where federal policy currently mandates equality among all population groups within 12 years under threat of sanctions-except standardized test scores in public schools. If this sounds unfair and absurd, it's because it is. It's a plan to use achievement gaps to label schools as failures, without providing the support and strategies needed to overcome them.

The AYP scheme and the resulting sanctions will do little to address the pressing needs of public schools. But they will create a widespread perception of systemic failure; demoralize educators, parents, and students; and erode the common ground that a universal system of public education needs to survive. It is a cynical campaign hatched by politicians who have built careers out of combining rhetorical concern for the victims of inequality with policies that perpetuate it.

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