The learning gap

No Child Left Behind has opened up a “new gap between poor and minority students, who are being taught to seek simple answers, and largely wealthy and white students, who are learning to ask complex questions,” writes elementary teacher David Keyes in the Washington Post. Poor kids get test prep instead of teaching, he writes.

The gap isn’t new, snarks Kevin Carey on The Quick and the Ed.

Now, there was a time, not so long ago, when there was no No Child Left Behind Act, when there were no consequences for schools where low-income and minority students did poorly. Presumably, the caste system in question didn’t exist back in that halcyon era of authentic education. You know, those palmy days when schools gave a rich, high-quality education to all their students, black or white, rich or poor.

If you believe that, I’ve got an op-ed to sell you.

Standards-based reform defenders should be concerned about bad test prep, writes Education Gadfly, even if most high-poverty schools weren’t teaching well pre-NCLB.

Gadfly thinks higher-quality tests that span more of the “domain” and are harder to “game” would be part of a solution; developing one set of such tests (nationally) would be a lot easier than doing it fifty times over (state-by-state). But changing policy is only half of the answer. Changing hearts and minds is critical, too. Someone should tell David’s principal that the surest route to improved test scores isn’t drill-til-you-drop; it’s an old-fashioned, quality education, replete with a sound mix of basic skills, high-level thinking, and everything in between.

Eduwonk posts an e-mail by Robin Chait, an education policy consultant and former teacher in Washington, D.C. She recalls her best principal, who told teachers that good instruction is the best way to prepare students for tests, and her worst principal, who ordered useless, mind-dulling test-prep exercises.

Keyes also fails to address the reality that students need basic skills to do more advanced work. For instance, in the area of reading, students will not be able to comprehend anything they read if they aren’t fluent readers. They need instruction in decoding or sounding out words, if they don’t already have these skills. This instruction can be provided concurrently with instruction in comprehension skills and other higher-level thinking skills, but it still needs to happen. And as E.D. Hirsch frequently points out, a rich curriculum is a predicate for learning to read well in the first place. The challenge for schools that teach high poverty children is how to provide this dual track of basic skills and higher order thinking skills instruction.

My book, Our School, is about a San Jose charter high school that struggles to teach basic skills while also giving students a chance to develop advanced skills that will enable them to succeed in college. When the school opened in 2000, the founders offered challenging, high-level courses to students, assuming D and F students — most from Mexican immigrant families — needed only motivation to become achievers. Their ninth graders couldn’t read the textbooks or do arithmetic. They had to add remedial reading and “numeracy” classes without being all remedial all the time. All the students who stick with the program at Downtown College Prep are admitted to college.

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