Achievement Gap Mania

Unless you follow education closely, you may not realize how much time and money is devoted to this single cause: closing the “achievement gap” between low- and high-achievers in public schools. Over the years, it’s become an obsession that drives policy at thousands of schools and hundred of school districts. And it has big consequences on allocation of important resources, like the teacher’s time and attention.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of the links below: of the multiple ways to close the “achievement gap”, public educators have decided for us that the best is to focus much more on raising up the low-achievers and letting the high-achievers fend for themselves, and that in making this choice, public education has done that latter group a big disservice.

But don’t take it from me, take it from a former teacher, Robert Pondiscio at The Core Knowledge Blog. Take it from Frederick M. Hess, who has written a must-read article in National Affairs called Our Achievement-Gap Mania.

Mr. Pondiscio summarizes the National Affairs article in Achievement Gap Mania Fails the “Tiffany Test”:

The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, policymaker or a fellow educator. It was an eleven-year-old girl named Tiffany Lopez, a fifth grader in my class during my second year of teaching in the South Bronx.

Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school and you will spot someone like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; homework always complete. She grew up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.

But she doesn’t get the attention that other kids get, because she is “not your problem,” as an administrator actually told Pondiscio early in his teaching career.

Really? Says who?

Is this where education has taken us, to a place where unaccountable bureaucrats pick winners and losers in the early primary grades, and decide who gets the teacher’s time and attention?


Today, school reformers, state and local education officials, exemplary charter-school operators, and managers of philanthropic foundations make it very clear that they are primarily in the business of educating poor black and Hispanic children. Indeed, anyone who has spent much time in the company of school reformers in the past decade has seen this practice turn almost comical, as when charter-school operators try to one-up one another over who can claim the most disadvantaged student population.

All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education. Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction. The New York Times has reported that, in Sacramento, California, poorly performing students are permitted to enroll only in math, reading, and gym, in a mad dash to help close the achievement gap. The Wall Street Journal has reported that, facing budget pressures and a relentless press to drive up reading and math scores among the least proficient students, school districts nationwide are axing foreign-language instruction. Indeed, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, between 1997 and 2008, the share of U.S. elementary schools offering foreign-language classes fell by roughly one-fifth.

I’ve got nothing against raising achievement for low-achieving students, of course. That’s part of the teacher’s job. But when it comes at the expense of the higher-achieving students, we arrive at a much more complicated set of tradeoffs. We should not rush headlong into these choices. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not really solving anything at all, even if it helps Paul a tiny bit. And it isn’t even doing that very well, because in large part, the problems faced by minorities – and really, that’s essentially what this is about – in poor urban schools are more basic and fundamental than anything the schools can do for them. When kids are getting killed in the streets and 12 year old boys join street gangs, whether via pressure or desire, they aren’t that focused on tomorrow’s spelling test.

Think about what this policy says: let some kids essentially learn on their own, because (so we’re told) the fulfillment of their potential is not as important as that of other children. And we rely on government testing to separate them out for us, and put them into two groups that receive vastly different levels of service. And we devote untold hours to just two subjects, reading and math, leaving everything else in the dust, despite the proven fact that reading comprehension is based on background knowledge in a wide array of subjects. And we do all this in taxpayer-funded schools, where discrimination based on every characteristic under the Sun is illegal. Except for being smart, apparently. Or perhaps, white.

I don’t recall being asked about using taxpayer dollars to support this type of discrimination. Do you? I don’t recall being asked about dumbing down the curriculum. You?

So, what is the teacher’s (or educator’s) job? To maximize every child’s potential, for the betterment of not just the child and his/her family, but for society, too. Here’s what it is not: to pick and choose among the candidates and hand out advantages based on race, intelligence, looks, hair color, shoe size, or anything else.

What we have today feels more like using government education as a leveling device to, if necessary, drag down the kids so we can pat ourselves on the back when the lowest achievers advance a point or two. Meanwhile, countries with less ridiculous educational goals, like Finland and India and countless other places around the world, zoom past us in achievement, actual educational value from actual learning, and competitive advantage in the world. If jobs are moving overseas because they’re better educated overall, including the top achievers, then what exactly are we doing here? You can be quite sure that places like Finland and India are not essentially ignoring the smarter kids in order to close gaps.

And even if this whole adventure was a good idea, which it isn’t, there are many and various practical problems with implementing it. How do we know what size gap is too big? Who is in charge of deciding when the gap is small enough? What is to stop them from making the tests easier and easier year after year, which brings up the bottom scores (dishonestly, and without more actual learning taking place) but hurts development at the top end, since teaching to the test is virtually an epidemic today? Nothing good that way lies.

But this is exactly the game we chose to play when we allowed unelected, anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats to make decisions about our children’s lives by framing and defining the mission of education in the wrong way. And we allow this to happen because we give too much power and authority to Washington. How’s that working out so far?


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