Addressing Educational Inequality

What's New

For decades, researchers have asked, “Are kids who face challenges economically, in their neighborhoods and sometimes in their homes, capable of achieving at high levels academically?” The Ambitious Elementary School, a book by researchers at the University of Chicago and Drexel University, suggests the answer is yes—but only if elementary schools adopt ambitious learning goals for all children and radically re-organize teaching and learning to achieve those goals. The book’s authors, Elizabeth McGhee Hassrick, Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Lisa Rosen, argue that the reason many historic school reform efforts have not worked to close achievement gaps is a failure to provide a coherent and coordinated learning experience for students. In The Ambitious Elementary School, they examine the University of Chicago Charter School elementary model, in which a shared and systematic approach to teaching is the norm. The model runs counter to many traditional school structures in which teachers operate autonomously with little guidance, interaction, or intentional coordination. It pulls teachers out of their isolated classrooms and places them into collaborative environments where they can share their curricula, teaching methods, and assessments of student progress with a school-based network of peers, parents, and other professionals. It has produced dramatic results for children’s reading and math achievement: The UChicago Charter School cut the black-white student achievement gap by 76 percent for students admitted through a random lottery versus students who entered the lottery and were not admitted. This is one of the largest effects of innovative schooling in the published literature.

Why It Matters

The debate about whether schools can eradicate gaps in educational achievement between students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds has persisted for decades. On one side of the debate are those who argue schools cannot possibly eliminate educational inequality before society eradicates economic inequality—that economic and social inequalities outside of schools make closing achievement gaps inside of schools unlikely at best and impossible at worst. On the other side of the debate are those who point to a significant body of research which provides strong evidence that schools can, in fact, foster high levels of achievement among disadvantaged students by increasing both the quantity and quality of instruction students receive: increasing instructional time, reducing class size, expanding access to high quality preschool, improving teachers’ knowledge and skill, and so forth. The Ambitious Elementary School suggests schools can, in fact, help to ameliorate educational inequality and—as evidence for more systematic, shared approaches to schooling mounts—we’re beginning to see more schools shift from traditional ‘private and idiosyncratic’ approaches to schooling and promote greater collaboration among school leaders, teachers, social workers, and others who play a pivotal role in students’ education.