In defense of ‘achievement gap mania’

“Achievement gap mania” hasn’t helped improves reading and math scores much for blacks and Hispanics, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. But we can’t give up.

Black and Hispanic fourth graders read as well as the average first or second-grade Anglo student on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Ladner writes.

 The focus on the achievement gap is important because it cuts to the heart of American ideals. We believe in equality of opportunity. We believe in meritocracy. We believe in class mobility and self-determination. Call it the triumph of hope over experience if you wish, but we believe that public education can help achieve all of this and we refuse to give up on the notion.

Spending more on low-income students should help, but hasn’t, he adds. Paul Hill at the University of Washington has a theory:

Money is used so loosely in public education—in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning—that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts.  Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results. 

Instead of changing the system, we make excuses for the failure of disadvantaged students, Ladner writes. 

Blah blah poverty yadda yadda video games. Whatever. I’m not saying that achievement gaps are the sole responsibility of schools, or that we will live to see them completely closed. I agree with Rick Hess that there are serious shortcomings to a reform strategy solely based on gaps.

We can however do a hell of a lot better than this. We focus on achievement gaps not because it is expedient, but because it is necessary.

I agree. If low-income students all got good teachers using well-designed curricula in well-run schools . . . They’d do better than they do now.

At Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle is crusading for more achievement gap mania.

. . . American public education serves up mediocrity to many of the kids it serves — and abject malpractice to its poorest children, to black and Latino kids regardless of their levels of wealth, to children in foster care, and to the young men and women its teachers and administrators relegate to the academic ghettos of special education.

Look at the widening achievement gap between boys and girls, Biddle adds.

“We should all be outraged that our tax dollars sustain a system in which 1.2 million children are condemned to poverty before they even have a chance to determine their own paths in life.”

About Joanne


  1. The $64k question is whether educrats would be willing to implement better curricula if it improved scores for all students, but did not reduce (and might even widen) the so-called “achievement gap”. Are we okay with a “rising tide lifting all boats” or do we care about equality of outcome rather than equality of access?

    • Sean Mays says:

      Given our patchwork system of schooling with local boards, we will see both your scenarios tried. We’ll see far fewer tried that might exacerbate the gap. I’d hazard a guess that choosing a curriculum that causes a widening of the achievement gap will be challenged (disparate impact, etc). Sure, all kids may become proficient under program X; but it’ll be noticed that far more of group A have achieved advanced standing than group B, and that won’t sit well with a vocal minority.

      Time and again we’ve seen choices made that lead to more equal outcomes; hetergeneous classrooms, fuzzy math, detracking, expansion of G&T, social promotion, self-esteem. I’d like to see a school structured so that each child is met at a good place and challenged each day, but I don’t expect to see it actually happen.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Well, I did an analysis of my numbers last month. Our minority/FRL/SPED students are now performing at higher levels (measured by ACT scores, state scores, etc. — also number of F’s, absences… bunch of other factors) than our white students were 10 years ago. The problem is the gap has not shrunk a bit because all boats are floating. We have figured out how to improve what we’re doing for all students, but we haven’t figured out how to increase the pace of improvement for our gap students over our white students. So, we’re not succeeding.

      • Human biodiversity suggests that you’re not going to get rid of the gap absent something like bashing the white and asian kids in the head with a hammer.

        OTOH, raising the averages for all groups is a praiseworthy accomplishment no matter what the gap is.

  2. Schools should do much better; enforcing discipline, better curriculum choices (classical or Core Knowledge, Singapore Math etc) and more effective (direct, teacher-centered) instruction and grouping kids by academic level and instructional needs. Every kid should spend the whole day working at an academic level that is challenging but not overwhelming or impossible to master. That said, culture matters. Almost all parents say that education is important, but is it important enough that they insist on appropriate behavior and work effort, turn off the TV, take the kids to the library/museum/etc., and make sure kids do their homework? In far too many communities, the answer is too often, no. That fact, however regrettable, should not be allowed to interfere with opportunities for those kids willing to work. NCLB should not be allowed to become Let No Child Get Ahead.

  3. If the achievement gap in school disappeared (for whatever reason), but minority students still didn’t have good life outcomes, we’d lose interest in the achievement gap. It is really just a proxy for the fact that white and Asian students grow up to have better jobs and more income, presumably because they do better in school. If minority students were avoiding poverty as adults in numbers similar to non-minority students, we’d see the achievement gap in a more measured light. We’d still have to work to improve achievement in all groups, but we wouldn’t fixate on it as much.

  4. Normally, you know, you would form a series of hypotheses about the source of the problem, design experiments to test the hypotheses and, once the source of the problem had actually been determined, you would address it specifically. If you’re designing a car and a metal part keeps failing, you would test to see if the problem was fatigue, vibration, a bad batch of alloy or whatever. The fix for each problem would be different and it would be pointless to try and fix it until you actually understood it.

    In education, the algorithm seems different: something is broken? The solution is money. Every time. If the problem is that more money doesn’t seem to work? More money!

    It doesn’t seem very… educated.

    • It’s easy say “The solution is money. Every time. ” But the reality is, changes cost money. Doing more costs money – whether it’s testing, tutoring, after-school programs…. Doing less might save money, but is unlikely to bring about improved academic performance.

      The better question would be “Is it a good investment.” So far, including NCLB, the return on investment from decades of “school reform” has been disappointing.

      “[S]chooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps. Conventional measures of educational inputs—class size and teacher salaries—that receive so much attention in policy debates have small effects on creating or eliminating disparities.”

  5. georgelarson says:


    Your point is excellent. Children of successful adults may have better contacts in the job market, the kind of social skills needed for a better job, may understand the importance of job interviews, prepare for job interviews and have parental advice on how to search for a job.