The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Student Achievement

Examining policy effects on equity and performance
  • Kathryn McDermott with two of her students in the classroom

McDermott's recent study highlights how school choice policies can sometimes reinforce racial and socioeconomic inequalities.

At all levels of government across the United States, the debate over educational standards is hot. And UMass Amherst educational policy expert Kathryn McDermott’s research shows that in our increasingly racially and economically stratified society, setting benchmarks alone will not eliminate persistent achievement gaps.

McDermott, trained as a political scientist and an expert on U.S. educational policy and equity, studies how the problems plaguing our public education system start far beyond the classroom walls: They are deeply rooted societal woes, and fixing them will require far-reaching public policies.

“I wish we could be less ambitious about what schools should do and demand more of government,” McDermott says. She adds that improved government programs related to income supports for families, comprehensive access to health care and universal early childhood education could have a big impact on student achievement.

McDermott’s work examines ways that student achievement is connected to demographics and equity. The scope of her research includes the political, social and economic motivations behind education policies such as desegregation, busing, school finance, curriculum development and testing.

While each of these policy realms has been undertaken with the purported aim of equalizing educational achievements for all students, McDermott’s findings show that the results have been anything but equal. Her 2011 book High-Stakes Reform: The Politics of Educational Accountability helps explain the wider context behind policymakers’ goals and students’ results.

McDermott argues that beginning in the 1970s, the focus of public schools was shifting away from educating students to become well-rounded members of society; the new goal was to create a competitive workforce. And the assumption was that high-stakes standards would motivate students to succeed.

There’s a problem with that assumption, though, according to McDermott: Our country’s racial and economic reality.

“Some of what kids are dealing with is beyond what schools can affect,” she says. “We need to find ways that schools can beat their demographic odds.”

McDermott’s research highlights a fascinating and tragic irony. In many cases, demographic divisions and inequalities in our public schools have become more deeply entrenched—and in some places even institutionalized—precisely because government officials were trying to equalize expectations and improve student achievement.

In a 2012 book chapter titled Interstate Governance of Standards and Testing, McDermott explains that national education standards became law in the 1980s with the expectation that common benchmarks for students would result in streamlined professional development materials for teachers. If teachers around the country used similar lessons and had consistent goals, the assumption was that students from every demographic group in every part of the country would have the same shot at meeting the national standards.

“In practice, however, sanctions and accountability have been a larger part of standards-based reform than has the development of improved training and professional development,” McDermott notes.

Of course, desegregation is the classic example of how well intentioned policies have actually entrenched inequality in American schools, as McDermott’s latest research explains. When court-ordered desegregation resulted in forced busing in large urban districts, many white families fled to the suburbs in the 1970s. Schools were still legally obligated to be racially diverse, though. So when education policymakers came up with school choice, they thought it would be a diversity elixir.

“Choice plans such as magnet schools and controlled choice plans allowed families the ability to have some input into where their children attended school, while also helping the districts pursue the goal of racial integration,” McDermott writes in a 2014 article, The ‘Post-Racial’ Politics of Race: Changing Student Assignment in Three School Districts.

But school choice policies—which require families to be actively involved in identifying options for their children and applying to schools—have not eliminated widespread racial and socioeconomic inequality. Instead, McDermott notes that the complexity of these policies may disadvantage some families while offering an advantage to well-educated or well-connected parents who are better able to use the policies to get their preferred school placements.

Still, as an associate professor with a joint appointment in the College of Education and the Center for Public Policy and Administration, McDermott knows empirically that government can make life better for people in concrete ways. But in order to do so, policies need to be written and implemented with a comprehensive understanding of what lies at the root of the problem.

It is that comprehensive understanding that McDermott tries to convey to her students. In her graduate-level courses Politics in Education and Theories of Educational Equity, McDermott teaches her students to think about the relationship between education standards and equity. And she hopes that one day, the students taking her classes will bring to their jobs of writing and implementing education policy a more complete and compassionate understanding of what lies behind achievement gaps in U.S. schools.

Michal Lumsden, Center for Public Policy and Administration