Update 3

In retrospect, I’m realizing that my day-to-day research process would have been a lot easier if I had narrowed down my topic more before I started. I could have done an entire project on any one of the subtopics included within my research, such as NCLB and high-stakes testing, multicultural pedagogy, or closing the achievement gap. However, I truly wanted to gain a broad, multifaceted understanding of why the education system creates such unequal outcomes for students, and to compile some of the options for reducing this inequality. As such, I’m glad I decided to take on such a large topic with so many different avenues to explore. It made my day-to-day research process more challenging, since I had to constantly rein myself in and discern which journal articles and books were relevant to my project. However, keeping my topic broad also allowed me to explore many different ideas without limiting myself to a constrained topic. And now that I’m almost done, I’m finding it extremely interesting to tie together the wide-ranging information I’ve found so far.

For example, in Jeannie Oakes’ book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, Oakes’ high-track respondents commented on their newfound communication skills and ability to think logically and rationally, while low-track students consistently said that they had learned to have better manners or, as one student bluntly put it, to “shut up.” As Oakes’ findings indicate, higher-track students are trained in the skills they will need to excel in the career world, while low-track students are taught to, quite literally, fade into the background. In Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau shares a similar finding: while middle-class children are taught to speak their minds when talking to adults, working-class children are taught to be obedient and well-mannered—and to hold their tongues. Oakes’ book is a study of tracking systems in U.S. schools, while Lareau’s account is a seminal sociological exploration of cultural capital. If my topic had been more limited, I may not have been able to uncover how these two factors perpetuate each other: children with less cultural capital often end up in lower tracks in schools, which, in turn, offer these children less of the type of cultural capital they will need to be successful in later life.

On another note, I spent last week investigating some options for educational reform. After spending so much time researching the possibilities that individual schools and teachers may implement to improve the quality of instruction they offer, I felt I needed to delve into the possibilities for change on a larger scale—namely, what federal and state governments are attempting to do to ensure each child is given a quality education. Most of the accounts I read detailed the flaws in high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind. For example, when NCLB was implemented, states were allowed to set their own definitions for what it means to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress, the benchmark that states needed to meet in order to receive the funding set aside for NCLB. However, it is difficult to fairly gauge the progress of schools when different states have vastly different meanings for adequate yearly progress. For example, in 2005, just 35% of 4th grade Missouri students were found to be proficient in reading, while 89% of Mississippi students met the requirement, indicating a serious discrepancy in what these two states deem to be adequate progress (Lim 2008).  However, it’s not all bleak—I have also read up on some of the ways that experts have suggested for NCLB to be improved, such as implementing auditing programs to ensure that schools are not engaging in grade inflation, and providing better teacher training programs so that instructors do not feel overwhelmed by the task of bringing their students up to standard.

I’m looking forward to tying everything I’ve learned together in my paper. This will be the most interesting aspect of my project, since I have so many different subtopics to connect. I have a very rough draft done on my paper, but next week I will begin working intensively on it. Getting the project done will take me a bit longer than I expected, but I expect to be mostly done by the end of July. I will spend the first few weeks of August editing and putting the finishing touches on my paper.


Lim, Robert L. 2006. “Toward a More Effective Definition of Adequate Yearly  Progress.” Pp. 27-42 in Holding NCLB Accountable: Achieving Accountability, Equity, and School Reform, edited by Gail L. Sunderman. Thousand Oaks,   California: Corwin Press.

Oakes, Jeannie. 2005. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lareau, Annette. 2011. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. 2nd ed. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.


  1. bestuhlmuller says:

    Your project sounds fascinating! I plan on becoming a high school science teacher so this research really interests me. You said you researched various options for educational reform at the state/federal government level, school wide and at the individual teacher level. Which avenue of reform do you think is the most feasible and/or the most effective?
    Good luck writing your paper,

  2. Aly Brown says:

    Hi – 

    This is a really important topic. I generally don’t like the NCLB policy, but I wonder if allowing states (and perhaps even counties) to choose their own benchmarks is actually beneficial for low-income students. It’s bizarre that Mississippi and Missouri would have such vastly different standards, but I also think that if you create a national curriculum, it’s going to inevitably be too challenging for some students and too easy for others. If the material is too difficult, students will feel frustrated and give up on their education entirely. If it’s too easy, students won’t learn the importance of working hard. State policymakers probably have access to data about the skill level of their average student, and would be able to create benchmarks that their students can feasibly attain. This would probably work even better at the county level.

    Of course, there should be national standards. One state shouldn’t be able to decide that they don’t need to teach any of their students math! But there could be some differences as to how knowledge of the material is tested.