01/05/2011 05:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Linda Darling-Hammond and the 'Opportunity Gap'

It is surprising to me that Linda Darling-Hammond, who most of us educational progressives admire, seems to have accepted the "national standards" movement as one way to deal with the "opportunity gap" in education in her article "Soaring Systems." (The American Educator ( Winter 2010-2011)). Fortunately, unlike many of the statements that are made by so-called educators that "poverty is no excuse," Darling-Hammond in her article states that there exists an "opportunity gap" based on "differences in access to key educational resources that support learning at home and at school," the result of poverty. But she also lists, among the needed changes such as equitable funding for schools, better ways of testing student knowledge, improved teacher education, better teacher salaries, and long-term reforms, the necessity to "organize teaching around national standards and a core curriculum that focus on higher-order thinking, inquiry and problem-solving through rigorous academic content."

Most all of the essays in this Winter issue of The American Educator argue for national standards. The editorial that prefaces the journal asserts "th[at] essential knowledge and skills -- the key to a rich life -- must be set forth in a common core curriculum. It's an idea whose time has come."

In E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s elegantly argued plea for such a curriculum, the author rightly objects to "endless drilling in finding the main idea" in teaching reading instead of having students read language rich texts. But he also argues that "nothing short of a common core curriculum -- one shared by all schools -- will do" in addressing the problems of what is now a hodgepodge of state and local curricula. Each of the other essays in this journal proposes a common core curriculum to deal with the educational opportunity gap. One by William H. Schmidt, Leland S. Cogan and Curtis McKnight also argues for more demanding math texts which, they have observed, have been watered down over the past two generations. Marilyn Jager Adams critiques how student vocabulary needs to be developed through "knowledge, cognitive strategies and inferences" as well as formal vocabulary instruction.

To their credit, a number of these essays also remind the reader that poverty or economic well-being are key factors in determining the success or failure of the young learner to grow and develop into a well-informed, productive citizen. As Schmidt, et al observed:

"On the basis of decades of findings that students with higher socioeconomic status typically have higher scores on achievement tests, some researchers and policymakers have hypothesized that socioeconomic status has a greater impact on achievement than does schooling itself."

Yet these educators and the rest of those who proposed an enriched and more uniform curriculum that should be adopted nationally attempt to redress these socioeconomic problems by giving greater rigor and consistency to what is taught in the classroom. They believe that these measures and other educational reforms will open to those young learners raised in poverty a path to move upward in economic and social opportunity.

Admirable as is this concept, however, if there is a "national standard," what prevents the same people who are using the present "standardized tests" from continuing to demonize teachers, close and "reorganize" schools, replace them with charter schools that have not proven to be any better than regular public schools, and play havoc with the "data" that will come from a "national standard" based on "higher order" test scores? What of the students who are "slow learners" being evaluated at the same level of subject-mastery that "quick learners" achieve? What of those students who have serious learning disabilities, or are non-native speakers? And what of the vast numbers of high school students who, for whatever reason, do not seem to sustain the motivation to learn that they might have had in the earlier grades? The assumption is that once there is a richer and more intellectually stimulating offering to attract reluctant learners to put in the necessary effort to acquire and retain the knowledge they are offered, they will eagerly do so. What many of these students who will not be able to come up to these standards need is an opportunity to acquire the skills for a decent paying job, regardless of whether they are ever able to obtain a high school diploma or college degree. In this respect, our country's economic system is failing miserably far more than our schools.

In any case, in order to enhance the chances of young learners to be educated, the system has to address the issues that are key to opening the road to learning; dealing with poverty while improving the schools. One can't happen without the other. By suggesting that national standards, that are being adopted anyway by many of the states as a result of the National Education Standards Conference in 2009 can seriously address the problems that are inherent in gross economic and social inequality, Darling-Hammond and the other contributors to this well-meaning series of essays is opening the door to another "panacea" for the ills of a nation that will not face its most serious problem: the failure of its economic system to continue to sustain viable livelihoods for an increasing number of its citizens.