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My Take on Duncan and Murnane's New Book: Restoring Opportunity

Three years ago, UC-Irvine's Greg Duncan and Harvard's Dick Murnane published a terrific edited volume titled Whither Opportunity? That volume summarized a slew of evidence on trends in educational outcomes and on how families, schools, and all the rest shape life outcomes for kids. Anyway, that's the backdrop for Duncan and Murnane's new book, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, which has just been published by my good friends at Harvard Education Press. (Full disclosure: I edited the "Innovations" series for HEP).

Their timing is auspicious, given that President Obama has recently initiated a national discussion about economic inequality. Those enmeshed in debates will benefit from this concise survey of where things stand, how we've gotten here, and what schools can help do about it.

If you haven't read the prior book, no worries. As Murnane and Duncan explain, they were concerned that the research bent of the first book may have turned off folks who weren't academics or data junkies. They also note that the first book focused on diagnosis rather than prescription. This short volume (144 pages of text) is all about recommending policies and prescriptions for educators, advocates, and public officials.

Duncan and Murnane argue that the answer is not more money, test-based accountability, revamping district practices and structures, or expanding school choice. They argue that the evidence is that the promise of any of these strategies is quite limited.

They offer a lot of ideas offered throughout, but the best compendium of what they propose is in their concluding chapter. So, what do they prescribe?

They are enthusiastic about the Common Core state standards. While they concede that standards and assessments won't "produce better teaching" or "student learning," the clarity around the skills students need to master will make it easier to improve teacher training, curricula, and assessments.

They argue that it's vital for schools serving low-income children to have strong supports and support organizations in place. This includes the support of recruiting and training programs like the Boston Teachers Residency Program, Teach For America, and the New York Leadership Academy. And, earlier in the book, they make a strong plea on behalf of pre-K.

They regard accountability as crucial, though they're less focused on high-stakes accountability systems than on creating climates where teachers feel "a responsibility to their colleagues for educating every student." They point to the importance of tapping new knowledge about children's developmental needs, pointing to a variety of examples.

And they cite the vital role of the family, and the importance of work-support programs that boost family income and make struggling parents feel less overburdened.

They're thoughtful scholars with a pleasantly practical bent. It's a well-written book that provides context and history of economic inequality and then accessibly discusses individual cases, promising programs, and key research findings.

For what it's worth, I'm a fan of the volume but mostly unpersuaded by the recommendations. I appreciate the theoretical benefits of common standards in reading and math, but am skeptical that the Common Core will deliver in the manner they hope. I'm happy to stipulate that knowledge, used well, can be a powerful lever of improvement--but it seems that that's generally the case, and the trick is how to get from here to there. Similarly, collegial obligation can be powerful lever, but we've been asking for 40 years (at least since the "effective schools" research) about how to create such cultures where they don't exist. I don't think anyone has a good answer. When it comes to supporting schools or families, the idea is terrific--but, once again, that the devil is in the details.

Of course, that's nothing new. So many of our grand plans for tackling inequality or improving schools falter when it comes to scaling model programs or translating big ideas into workable practices. Duncan and Murnane are smart guys, and I'd be happy to see folks give their formula a try. And I'd be happy to be won over. But for now, I'm unpersuaded.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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