Closing the gap

Schools in Norfolk, Virginia are closing the achievement gap between black and white students, reports the St. Pete Times. Overall, the district is two-thirds black; 60 percent of students come from low-income families.

In 1998, 67 percent of Norfolk’s white third-graders passed the state English exam. Only 41 percent of the district’s black third-graders met that standard.

Five years later, the passing rate for black students had jumped to 61 percent.

A black superintendent named John Simpson took over in 1998 with a mandate to improve achievement. He stressed using data to improve teaching.

Teachers were ordered to test their students — over and over, if necessary — until they could determine what they knew. That information was used to tweak lesson plans and identify children who needed extra instruction.

It sounds like schools have found a way to group students by performance, discreetly. A class of 36 students and two teachers is split into two groups: One serves students who are doing well; the other is for children with learning problems. Teachers use different approaches but students are expected to learn the same material.

At a school with very low-income students and high transiency, fourth grade teachers analyze test scores.

They weren’t happy with what they saw.

The teachers wondered whether the students were tired by the time they got to a question with a high percentage of wrong answers. They noticed an even distribution of answers to another question, an indication that none of the students knew how to solve the problem.

In Norfolk, knowing why students answered incorrectly is as important as the overall test score. It allows teachers to identify weaknesses and adjust their instruction accordingly.

There is a maxim in education circles. Testing at the end of the school year is an autopsy. Testing during the year is a check-up.

At one middle school, the principal enlarged PE classes so she could cut PE teachers and hire more English and math teachers. Students now spend 85 minutes a day learning math. And it shows.

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  1. andursonne says:

    It’s good that they’re closing the gap but isn’t it also disturbing that the number of white third-graders who passed the test is so low? Only 67%? In fact, given how much the Af-Am students scores jumped, how much did the white students scores jump? It doesn’t say. The gap could still be considerable. Afterall, they’re comparing scores that are a few years apart. This is still a remarkable improvement though.

  2. “The principal enlarged PE classes so she could cut PE teachers . . . and it shows” I’ll bet it does — more overweight kids, more kids with diabetes, fewer health life styles, etc.

    It’s always easier to to increase the quantity of instruction. What we really need to do is to increase the quality of instruction — qualified teachers, effective curricula, etc. Maybe then we wouldn’t be tempted to choose between critical areas of the curriculum.

  3. Hunter McDaniel says:

    Sorry Jack, but until the kids can read and write PE is just a frill. I’m all for improving quality also, but there is no substitute for time-on-task.

  4. “I’ll bet it does — more overweight kids, more kids with diabetes, fewer health life styles, etc.”

    Why assume that a larger PE class will lead to health problems? Primary responsibility for the children’s health should fall to their parents anyway not the school.

  5. So 85 minutes of Math instruction each day with an unqualified, poorly equipped teacher is the magic bullet? It calls to mind the old joke: “The food here is terrible.” “Yes, and such small portions.”

    How long is the school day in Norfolk? Is there a chance that students can have ample time for Math and Reading, AND PE? I think this is less about time, more about money, and nothing about the kids.

  6. Walter Wallis says:

    Interesting how they have to smuggle rational teaching in as if it were contraband.

  7. Doug Sundseth says:

    As far as I can remember, PE is where you get to rest after recess. Yes, I’m sure the lifelong health effects of dodgeball and kickball are quite important, but you might wish to examine the relative health of educated and uneducated parts of the population.

    If you want healthy adults, teach children reading, writing, and mathematics.

  8. oliviacw says:

    For all the time I spent in PE learning arcane rules of sports (yes, we had written exams on things like the rules for scoring in badminton) and getting my glasses knocked off by “accidental” face balls in dodge ball….all PE taught me was to hate sports and not to participate in anything vaguely athletic unless I was forced. I’d have been better off with less PE and more math, for sure, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of health.

  9. JimInNOVA says:

    oliviacw – Actually, you’d have been better off with quality PE instruction. Had the teacher had control of the class and actually taught you a sport you enjoyed your would probably be more inclined to exercise. I was lucky enough to have parents that forced me to participate in athletics and fine arts in addition to my academics, kids without parents like that should be exposed to what they’re missing. I’m not saying that PE or music are more important than the core ciriculum but they’re certainly important enough not to cut them altogether.

  10. I remember reading a NYTimes story many months back about the way that poverty and a lack of physical health often coexist. Wealthy students often play extracurricular sports that aren’t offered in poorer schools, plus they have athletic options that poor children can only dream of: club teams.

    PE is a vital thing, not a frill. Many poor neighborhoods are no place in which to send children out to play. Combine that with poor nutrition, and you have the aforementioned problems.

    Now, unfortunately, even if there is PE, it has to be rigorous to be meaningful. Children need to run and play, not get an A for “participation”. Healthy minds and bodies are needed.

    And I’m glad someone somewhere decided to test children as they are learning. It’s an amazing concept in the era of Graduation Exams. Someday, we’ll know who will pass and who won’t, based on the students’ knowledge. Hopefully we won’t then take the next step and declare end testing unnecessary.

  11. superdestroyer says:

    The real question about PE is whether schools are for academic education or social engineering. If you worry about fat kids or bad health, then you are in the social engineering side of schooling.

    The real question that should be asked is, does PE help high school graduates function at the 12th grade level? If it does not, then it can easily go away.

    Anyone arguing that poor kids go not exercise needs to watch the film “Hoop Dreams.” For many inner city kids, exercise interfers with exerything else.

  12. Yeah, sure. Those two outstanding athletes in that one film prove that millions of children don’t need any access to exercise. Uh huh.

    And Bill Cosby proves that class clowns will be financially sound. And Oprah proves that the girl who talks too much will become a billionaire. And Al Green and Aretha Franklin prove that they can get by with their voices.

    Those black people not only don’t need PE, they don’t even need school.

  13. Roy W. Wright says:

    “PE” has no place in school. Whether it is beneficial or not, it is not the government’s place to force kids to exercise.

  14. JimInNOVA says:

    Roy – taking that argument and applying it to academics could invalidate compulsory schooling. Beneficial or not, it isn’t the government’s place to force kids to learn algebra, history, etc. But since the government is taking over that roll, they might as well teach the kids everything they’re going to need to know in life. And how to stay physically healthy is something one needs to know, unless we’re going to let my insurance company charge higher premiums to those who don’t exercise.

  15. It can’t have been an easy, nor a popular, decision to fire PE teachers in order to hire more English and math teachers. The principal did what she was hired to do: identify the problems, find a solution, and take effective action.

  16. For as much as I hated PT and thought it was worthless, I look back and wish I’d taken it more seriously and taken it more. The automatic dismissal that the “academic” students have of PE is a good indicator of the obesity issues in the country.

  17. Doug Sundseth says:

    Shawn: “The automatic dismissal that the “academic” students have of PE is a good indicator of the obesity issues in the country.”

    I was an “academic” student. I was also on the track team, a fairly serious skier, played the occasional pickup game of basketball or volleyball, and actually liked to watch sports. I found PE classes to be an absolute waste of my time, neither providing me with an opportunity to exercise nor abetting an interest in any sport.

    Note that I grew up in a military family, so I had quite a wide set of schools in which to compare PE classes. Never did I get anything out of a PE class that I value today. In every school, my PE classes were worthless.

  18. Mad Scientist says:

    The whole idea that “lack of PE causes obesity” is pure bullshit. If anyone thinks that 30-45 minutes 2-3 times a week will correct the root cause of obesity (or diabetes, or whatever) better rethink their assumptions pretty quickly.

    What about all the kids who sit in front of the TV or computer for all of their free time? Since summer is almost upon us, how is PE going to ensure kids stay active during the “off season”?

    Couple a sedentary lifestyle, parents who allow their kids to be couch potatoes, and eating all the junk food they can stuff in their little mouths, and maybe you can begin to see where the problem lies.

  19. lindenen says:

    The problem with pe classes is that they don’t actually teach you how to play the sports. You’d think when handing a kid a tennis racket the teacher would bother to teach the kid how to hit the damn ball. Or how to serve it. THey should be giving the equivalent of lessons but they don’t.

    And then if the class is co-ed most of the girls will sit out the sports and preen for the boys.

  20. Roy W. Wright says:

    …taking that argument and applying it to academics could invalidate compulsory schooling…

    Hmm, I like the sound of that.

  21. Tim from Texas says:

    Physical Education can and should be a core course. It shoudn’t be just about “sports” and how to play them. A good PE curriculum covers all aspects of the physical being and its needs.

    There is plenty of time in the school day for academics and PE.
    However, if one thinks that the team sports are more important ,morever, every team at the school must be a winning team, which serves only the few, then one will probably not find the time,facilities, nor the money for a PE program that serves all.

    I know I speak heresy here. Please forgive me.

  22. I can definitely see the benefit of some sort of physical activity for young kids, especially boys. I think our society does them (and their teachers) a great disservice by trying to keep them quiet in the classroom with no outlet for all the energy that young boys typically have.

    On the other hand, the only physical activities I enjoyed in school were ballet (which my parents paid for), gymnastics (which my parents paid for), and marching band. Why should I have been forced to spend part of my day having to stand around and wait for my turn to strike out at softball when I could have been doing math or science or history?

  23. lindenen says:

    I never said pe should just be about sports. but if you’re going to have these kids play sports, for godssake at least teach them to play them!

  24. Jim Taylor says:

    Closing the gap:

    All the comments are about PE. What about the essence of the story: test early and often, work harder on the stuff the kids didn’t learn, retest.

    Education, or simply training?

    Twenty years ago a Physics Professor at Penn State (educated in Germany) said it killed him to have to award PhD’s to illiterates. They had the science, but absolutely nothing in the humanities, and the schools that fed Penn State didn’t care. Is it better now, or worse?

    When I was at the U of Ill a Math Prof complained about the kids who studied New Math: They can prove the limit exists, they can show that it has an upper bound and a lower bound. They just can’t find the answer. And that was before every school kid had a calculator to do the arithmetic for him.

    The man who taught me to use a slide rule first taught me how to make one. He had me make marks on two pieces of paper and use them as a primitive slide rule. When I got a Log-Log Duplex Decitrig rule I never even opened the instruction book. I knew how every function worked, or could figure it out from first principles, because Dr. Boschan educated me instead of trainig me.

    Professional vs. Vocational:

    I have seen a horde of engineers rise through the income ranks for ten years and then stagnate for the rest of their careers. In terms of real income, the best year I ever had was 1968. I make five times what I did then, but I’m not as well off. If I had followed my original inclination fifty years ago I would have become an electrician instead of an engineer. I’d likely have more money. What’s more, my peers wouldn’t all be working sixty hours a week without overtime pay, terrified that their jobs will be outsourced to someone overseas.

    My grandson graduated at the top of his class at a very prestigious engineering school two years ago. He quit his job last month to go into business with a couple of experienced men from the building trades. They already have a number of contracts for maintenance and renovation of offices and apartments, and other buildings. He’s one of the smart ones.


  25. JimInNOVA says:

    JimT – Building trades are big business now, and they’re impossible to outsource. They have a hard enough time finding a kid that can remember BBROYGBVGWSG to serve as an electrician’s apprentice that every one that can do that and compute amperage is well paid.

    Roy – I never said getting rid of compulsory education was a bad thing. =)