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Cover of Whither Opportunity? report. Click to enlarge.

“Poverty isn’t destiny,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is fond of saying. Taken literally, it’s a ridiculous statement. If “destiny” is defined as an inevitable or predetermined end state, it only takes one instance of someone escaping poverty to refute the claim that poverty is destiny. Race isn’t destiny, either; but that’s little consolation for the one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 who are incarcerated, many for offenses that resulted in harsher sentences than for whites found guilty of engaging in similar behaviors.

So if the phrase “poverty isn’t destiny” isn’t to be taken literally, what might Arne Duncan mean? Presumably, he believes that the educational policies of the Obama administration have demonstrated that school districts can “overcome” poverty to create schools in which poor children achieve at very high levels. Just as it only takes one person to counter the poverty-destiny equation, a single school can do so as well.

But although there are some shining examples of high-performing schools serving high concentrations of students in poverty, they surely aren’t typical–and it would be very misleading to claim that any state or school district has effectively eliminated the link between poverty and low academic achievement, despite a decade or more of federal and state reforms intended to do just that.

Secretary Duncan may view himself as a cheerleader for these reforms, saying with great confidence that the tweaking of the package of reforms embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act, and the policies propelled by the Race to the Top competition, will have bold consequences for educational inequalities associated with race, income, English proficiency and disability. Wishing doesn’t make it so, however. There’s no evidence to date that the kinds of accountability provisions in NCLB have had these kinds of effects.

What’s even worse is that the “poverty isn’t destiny” trope disguises real changes over time in the structure of economic inequality in American society. Put simply, the disadvantages associated with poverty are getting worse. A new book edited by economists Greg Duncan of the University of California-Irvine and Richard Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education–Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances (Russell Sage Foundation)–demonstrates that rising income inequality in the U.S. is associated with growing inequalities in reading and math achievement, college graduation rates, and spending on enrichment activities such as music or art lessons, or travel.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, Duncan and Murnane argue that the consequences of this economic inequality are far-reaching. “Debating the merits of teachers unions, charter schools and test-based accountability,” they write, “all fail to address the core problem, which is that growth in family income inequality has eroded educational opportunities.”

Duncan and Murnane are not arguing that school reform policies don’t matter. Rather, they’re suggesting that there are other policies that are much more likely to be successful in reducing educational inequality–high quality preschool education and income supports for low-income families, to name two. If we’re serious about improving equality of opportunity in American society, we’re better off attacking the root problem than tinkering with its consequences.

Duncan vs. Duncan: Who would have guessed I’d side with the economist?

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