Letter to the Editor: Schools as Scapegoats

To the Editor:

In their article about blaming schools for economic problems Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein inaccurately characterize an article that we recently wrote. Mishel and Rothstein write that we, "worry that the urgent "competitiveness agenda" could be derailed if we are distracted by a focus on equity-improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. Attention will now have to be turned, they conclude, to further improving the technological savvy of those already primed to succeed."

We concluded no such thing. In fact our article took no position on that question and made no policy recommendations at all because we do not, in fact, agree on the steps policymakers should take. Instead, both the article that Rothstein and Mishel cite, as well as the longer Phi Delta Kappan article it was adapted from, merely discussed the inherent tensions between education policies intended to promote equity and policies intended to bolster competitiveness and how these tensions are too often misunderstood or papered over in policymaking.

Frederick M. Hess & Andrew J. Rotherham


There is no dispute that Frederick Hess and Andrew Rotherham, in their American Enterprise Institute essay, assert that "study after study shows an America unprepared to compete in an increasingly global marketplace." This assertion is the source of our disagreement with them. Our article in The American Prospect demonstrated that study after study does not "show" this, although many policymakers and commentators cling to the discredited claim that poor schools have caused stagnant middle class incomes and growing income inequality. We also said that Hess and Rotherham conclude that, to remedy the alleged lack of preparedness to compete, we must turn our attention to middle class students with the greatest academic potential, thereby diminishing the recent focus on equity for disadvantaged students. Hess and Rotherham now complain that, while their essay stated that the educational goals of equity and competitiveness are in conflict, they did not explicitly say that equity should be sacrificed to competitiveness. We acknowledge this, and are happy to correct the record in this respect.

But although Hess and Rotherham did not explicitly urge a sacrifice of equity to competitiveness, we think that this is the clear implication of their article, notwithstanding Rotherham's apparent misgivings. Given the near-exclusive focus of education policy in the NCLB era on disadvantaged students, it is hard to imagine what other reason there might be for Hess and Rotherham to write an essay with the twin claims that the nation suffers from an education-provoked crisis of competitiveness and that solving this crisis conflicts with the pursuit of equity. Also, if American schools have truly left the nation unprepared to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, it would be unreasonable, perhaps even irresponsible, not to make reversal of that condition the highest priority. Experience has shown that equity can be most successfully pursued in times of economic expansion and security. Fortunately, because we remain in reasonably good economic shape, we can continue to pursue an equity agenda without any sacrifice of competitiveness.

Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein

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