Achievement gap mania

Achievement-gap mania has distorted education policy, narrowed schooling to reading and math, “hollowed out public support for school reform” and “stifled educational innovation,” argues Rick Hess in National Affairs.

In a “noble” effort to raise the achievement of  “left behind” students, schools are ignoring the learning needs of average and high-achieving students, Hess argues.

A universal and exclusive focus on low-achieving kids ignores the fact that different education strategies work best for different kinds of students.

. . .  The kinds of teaching and support that can help disadvantaged students acquire the skills and knowledge that they did not receive at home are often superfluous or inappropriate for more advantaged children. In this way, gap-closing can transform from a strategy that lifts up the least proficient students into one that slows up the most proficient.

And children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers.

“Achievement-gap mania has signaled to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about their kids,” Hess writes. That’s undercut support for education reform.

Gap-closing reformers are social engineers who think they can identify “what works” — defined as raising reading and math scores and graduation rates — and make schools do it. They want to evaluate teachers by how they move test scores.

But while the ability to move these scores may be 90% of the job for an elementary-school teacher in Philadelphia or Detroit, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to use these metrics to evaluate teachers in higher-performing schools — where most children easily clear the literacy and numeracy bar, and where parents are more concerned with how well teachers develop their children’s other skills and talents.

With so much focus on raising reading and math scores of low-performing students, refoermers aren’t pursuing innovative “education strategies capable of improving American schools overall,” Hess concludes. He defends his stand against critics n his Ed Week column.

Dropout Nation’s RiShawn Biddle is one of those critics. Closing the achievement gap benefits all students, he responds.

Here’s the thing: When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by American public education — including for young black, white and Latino men — we are improving education for our high-performing students as well.

I think improving the competence of low-performing students is very important for the health of our society, our economy and our  democracy, but I don’t think it’s an automatic win-win for average or high-performing students.

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  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    On the other hand, closing the behavior and discipline gap MIGHT actually benefit all students. It’s easier to address varied student needs when the teacher can trust the kids to work silently by themselves for extended periods of time.

    I think the discipline gap is what’s really holding many schools back. My Homeschool group went on a field trip to a pioneer reenactment museum yesterday. The students ranged from PK- 8th grade, with many, many K,1, and 2 graders. The staff was a little put off at first, because they’re used to trying to hold the attention of 4th graders and were sure the little ones would be bored. By the end of the day, they were in shock, as our Kindergarteners behaved better than the public school 4th graders. Kids can’t learn if they can’t master basic politeness. And a few rude, disruptive kids will ruin an experience for everyone involved.

    If reformers focused on the discipline gap, the learning gap might follow…..

  2. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    The achievement gap is really the values gap. Education is a long, arduous process that includes hard work, discipline, delay of gratification, and of course, respect and appreciation for learning. When I visited a local public library in Los Angeles during the week after school got out (it is a few blocks, from a multiethnic high school), I noticed mostly Asian teens were inside, studying, and mostly Latino and black teens were outside, riding bikes and skateboards, or hanging out and socializing. Funny how Asians are an actual numeric minority in the United States, with a far smaller population than either blacks or Latinos, yet are never counted as “minorities”; in fact, they often outperform “whites” at both the high school and college level. Just as with blacks and Latinos, Asian immigrants from various countries have also been discriminated against historically. Yet, there is no Chinese-Japanese-Korean-Thai-Cambodian-Vietnamese-Filipino-Burmese-Indian-Sri Lankan-Nepalese-Singaporean-Malaysian-achievement gap. And furthermore, any Asian language is linguistically further removed from English than either Spanish or “Non-Standard Black English” (Ebonics)–yet, immigrant Asian students in elementary school transition to English at a much faster and more successful rate than immigrant Latinos, especially those from Mexico. So, in the final analysis, why the Latino/black achievement gap? VALUES. Throwing money at the problem year after year is simply shining up an apple with a rotten core.

  3. Agreed; both comments are spot on and politically radioactive. I spent the 80s commuting into Northeast DC to grad school, passing many schools on the way. Almost all MD students carried backpacks, most obviously filled with books and notebooks but few DC students did; boys carried boom boxes, if anything, and girls carried purses. Asians were the usual exceptions (few whites in that area). Admittedly, my kids knew some of their schoolmates primarily carried their walkman, tapes and snacks, but there was still the pretense of being students. The DC kids generally made no such pretense. Maybe, the culture has changed there, but I really doubt it.