College Readiness: Are Different Definitions Driving Inequality?

Marc Tucker of Education week comments on college readiness for students across the nations, and the different definitions of being ready for different groups of students. Does this nationwide difference drive inequality? Excerpts of his commentary appear below:

The rapidly increasing social class and racial isolation of the last four or five decades has been accompanied by another kind of isolation-a wide and growing gulf between those who go to ‘college’ but who enter with little more than middle school knowledge and literacy and those who have far more.  Increasingly, the people in the latter camp live apart, in their own enclaves, marry one another, and create a set of expectations and cultural supports for their children from birth forward that are simply not available to a large and growing class of people whose prospects are increasingly grim.

I used to think that it was the forces that account for widening income inequality that have resulted in increasing inequality of education opportunity and there is certainly much truth in that.  But what if it is no less true that widening inequality in educational standards is leading to widening income inequality?  What if these forces are strengthening each other?

I believe that the effective standards for most American high school students have been lowered over the last 30 years at the very time that the actual academic requirements for access to a middle class way of life have been steadily rising and can be expected to rise further in the years ahead. At the same time, standards at the upper end of the distribution have risen dramatically, but only for a relatively small band of highly advantaged elite students who, by virtue of having met those standards, will be uniquely positioned to ride the next wave even as the majority of students struggle for the rest of their lives.

The most responsible policy would be to raise dramatically the standards we set for most students.  Paradoxically, we can expect the greatest resistance to such a move to come from the parents of poorly educated students who are afraid that raising the standards will disadvantage their children.  This is a democracy—we cannot raise the standards without first persuading those parents that their children have more to fear from standards that are too low than from standards that are too high.  Therein lies the core challenge for education leaders in the years ahead. 

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