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Bill Tierney

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Analyzing Inequality: Whither Opportunity

Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane is a critically important book about the rising power of class in American life. The editors and contributors look at multiple aspects of inequality and how it pertains to education. The 551-page book in six parts with 25 chapters looks at adolescence, the family, neighborhoods, schools, and labor markets to explain the challenges we currently face to overcome inequality. The book is less prescriptive and more analytical, and although various authors may disagree with one another the overall themes are more consistent than divergent. One might classify the text as a neo-liberal analysis that accepts capitalism as the overarching structure in which the investigations take place. A Marxist, socialist or far-right lens of Hayek and others does not really get employed in the text. Charter schools are not really put forward as a solution, for example, although in the final chapters they are seen as part of a solution. Many of today’s hot-button issues such as teacher testing do not get very much time. Instead, the text is more focused on diagnosing problems rather than putting forward a particular agenda.

The book is thoughtful, penetrating, and insightful—and a bit depressing. The authors make the case that inequality is on the rise in virtually all aspects of a child’s life and this inequality seems to be perpetuated and of consequence frames the life chances of children. The American belief that hard work and initiative enables anyone to succeed is put to the test here, and the conclusion can only be that such a belief is more myth than reality. I will use this book in my research and teaching, and it will play a critical role in discussions about education and poverty over the next decade.

I want, however, to raise a slightly different issue about the book which occurred to me as I made my way through its pages. Not one teacher, parent, or child’s voice appears in the 551 pages of this book. The reader never hears the voices of hope, despair, anger, frustration, or accomplishment of any individual who is the subject of the book. Perhaps the editors of the book felt these voices would be irrelevant—or that this is not that kind of book. Certainly every article or chapter of a book does not need to demonstrate evidence that the subjects under study were involved. This book, however, is almost 600 pages.

What does it say when we analyze people and do not include them in our analyses? My concern has less to do with the doctrinaire attitude the Institute of Education Sciences holds about methodology. Their stance is simply mistaken and the result is that good research is shortchanged. With this book, however, my concern has largely to do with an unstated assumption that there is no worth to having the people we talk about to be involved in the conversation. To be sure, the authors of the various chapters are men and women and people of color. I am sure that some of the authors came from low-income families. And yet, I admit to a degree of discomfort that the strengths of the book are circumscribed by the inexplicable omission of those under investigation.

In Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “A Worker Reads History” he begins:  

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

The editors of Whither Opportunity surely would respond that they have done just what Brecht had desired—the poor are front and center in this book. But why are they voiceless? Do their voices not matter? Are we—the readers, researchers, policy analysts, and general public—able to impose solutions on people without their involvement? As Brecht states at the close of his poem: So many particulars. So many questions.

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