September 21, 2011

Closing the Achievment Gap the Wrong Way

Marc Comtois

Frederick Hess:

Today, the notion of "closing achievement gaps" has become synonymous with education reform. The Education Trust, perhaps the nation's most influential K-12 advocacy group, explains: "Our goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement."...Such sentiments are admirable, and helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing. In their glib self-confidence, the champions of that effort have refused to confront its costs and unintended consequences, and have been far too quick to silence skeptics by branding them blind defenders of the status quo (if not calling them outright racists).

The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.

For example:
Of particular concern is the way "achievement-gap mania" has forced educators to quietly but systematically shortchange some students in the rush to serve others. Pollsters Farkas and Duffett, for instance, have reported that struggling students possess an unrivaled claim on teachers' attention. In 2008, the team found that 60% of teachers surveyed said that struggling students were a "top priority" at their schools while just 23% said the same of "academically advanced" students — even on a question to which teachers could provide multiple answers. When asked which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers, 80% of the survey participants said academically struggling students, while just 5% said academically advanced students.
The results have been troubling:
And children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation's lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, "It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students . . . .Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one."
Defining success downward isn't the way to close the achievement gap. It has also resulted in an loss of "buy-in" from parents.
Gap-closing strategies can be downright unhelpful or counterproductive when it comes to serving most students and families, and so can turn them off to education reform altogether. Longer school years and longer school days can be terrific for disadvantaged students or low achievers, but may be a recipe for backlash if imposed on families who already offer their kids many summer opportunities and extracurricular activities. Policies that seek to shift the "best" teachers to schools and classrooms serving low-achieving children represent a frontal assault on middle-class and affluent families. And responding to such concerns by belittling them is a sure-fire strategy for ensuring that school reform never amounts to more than a self-righteous crusade at odds with the interests of most middle-class families.
So they take their kids and put them in another, alternative system. Like private/parochial schools. In short, a laser-like focus on closing the achievement gap in math and reading has left much by the wayside.

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How could anyone have known that high-stakes, government mandated, standardized testing would skew curriculums in unwanted ways? I'm just floored!

Posted by: Russ at September 22, 2011 10:52 AM

I still don't get how we made testing so important without allowing 'tiers' of students. I'm not against high-stakes testing at all, but there ought to be a way for teachers and schools who take on the bottom two tiers to not get in hot water for poor scores relative to those taking care of the top tier.

Posted by: mangeek at September 22, 2011 1:14 PM

Mangeek - "Tiering" is a racist, classist term. I believe that progressives prefer the term "banding." We don't want anyone's self-esteem hurt.

I was in a "banded" program in public middle school. It was great - the 1's learned algebra while the 10's threw things at each other in the basement. Everyone was happy with the arrangement. The only issue was you could get highest honors for doing 5 minutes of work each night and the teachers were out as often as they came in. But that's just public school for you.

Posted by: Dan at September 22, 2011 1:33 PM

Maybe we have progressed. When I was in grade school (just after the Civil War)the school had a "Dumb Room" where underachieving students were "banded". If you made trouble, teachers would threaten to send you to the "Dumb Room". In Voke school, English was a large print Reader's Digest. It was presumed that Voke students were dumb, I'm not so sure about that. I know a few of them now that have done pretty well.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 23, 2011 12:18 AM

This is the part that I don't understand about the high stakes testing and having teachers' careers and school's existences rise and fall on their ability to have everyone reach the same point ("proficient") academically. Shouldn't the schools be mandated to make a good education available to all students, and for those children who are gifted, offer advanced studies? Equality of opportunity is never going to guarantee equality of outcome for all students no matter how good the school, curriculum or staff are. The only way to even come close to such a thing would be to have every student have an IEP, but I don't think that schools, as they currently exist, could teach that way.

Posted by: Bucket Chick at September 25, 2011 10:19 PM
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