Book exposes alarming inequality in U.S. math, science education

July 5, 2012

American students experience vast differences in content coverage across states, school districts and even from classroom to classroom, according to a new book by University Distinguished Professor of education and statistics William H. Schmidt.

Based on decades of research, Schmidt and co-author Curtis C. McKnight illustrate how unequal opportunities to learn mathematics and science are affecting potential achievement not only for minority and poor students but for students from middle-income school districts.

Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools tells parents they can’t assume their child is getting an equal chance to learn math and science just because they live in a middle-class community. In fact, the quality of education students receive is largely due to what community they happen to live in, making academic opportunities into a kind of social lottery with profound consequences.

Schmidt and McKnight, professor emeritus at University of Oklahoma, say their findings underscore the essential role of teachers, too many of whom are inadequately prepared to teach mathematics. Advocating for the adoption of Common Core State Standards, they argue the existing system unfairly forces teachers to choose what to teach from the conflicting guidance of textbooks, state and district standards and assessments.

Classes vary greatly in what topics are taught, for how long and with what degree of rigor. For example, students in different “algebra” classes – even at the same school – may focus on basic mathematics or cover more advanced material. Inequality for All indicates the practice of tracking, or assigning students to weaker classes that constrains their future success in school and the job market, is still very widespread.

Schmidt and McKnight believe the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics, expected to be implemented in most states, afford an excellent chance to move from a very fragmented U.S. math curriculum toward a system that gives every child the same chance at a good education. The authors urge a call to action – for politicians, educators and parents – to rally in support of America’s children by supporting every student’s right to an equal opportunity to learn.

Inequality for All was published by Teachers College Press in July 2012.