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Why I have no use for the achievement gap

I don't mean this as a criticism of my talented colleague Bill Turque. He was reporting the news, as usual. But I did not like the focus of his otherwise irreproachable Sunday story on the achievement gap not narrowing in the D.C. schools.

Turque was letting us know that despite the growth in D.C. math scores, the gap between black and white students had gotten larger for fourth-graders. This was an important topic in education circles, so he had to report it.

But I think the achievement gap is useless as a measure of school improvement, and we would be much better writing about how much each ethnic group, each school, each child is improving, or not improving. Our gap fixation puts us in a very awkward position.

You see it. It's simple. It forces us to hope that white kids, or middle class kids, or high achieving kids, don't improve.

Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless pointed this out in a 2008 analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Turque provided more recent information from NAEP tests in his story.

Loveless pointed out that news accounts he had seen were giving credit to the No Child Left Behind law for reducing the achievement gap between traditionally high-achieving and low-achieving students. He said this kind of reporting overshadowed "the languid performance trends of high achieving students."

In a column last year, I quoted him saying "their test scores are not being harmed during the NCLB era, but they are not flourishing either. 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. The nation has an interest in developing the talents of its best students to their fullest to foster the kind of growth at the top end of the achievement distribution that has been occurring at the bottom end."

As I wrote then, we talk about narrowing the achievement gap as if it is always a good thing, but that's not so. "Here are some ways the gap could narrow: Low-income scores improve but high-incomes scores don't; low-income scores don't change but high-income scores drop; low-income scores drop but high-income scores drop even more. In each of those cases of gap-narrowing, something bad is happening," I wrote.

"My theory is that we have unconsciously taken our concern about the income gap -- a lively issue in the last several years -- and adopted the same vocabulary when we worry about how our children are doing in school, even though making money and learning to read, write and do math are different enterprises," I wrote. "I can understand distaste for people who build 50-room mansions with gold bathroom fixtures. But can anyone learn too much? Wisdom tends to help everyone who comes in contact with it. Ski chalets in Aspen are less useful to those of us who can't afford them."

I don't think I am going to make much headway in my campaign against the gap mindset. It has become an automatic measure of our success. But the African-American fourth-graders in Turque's story did have an average three point gain in two years, which is not bad. That was not as good as the eight point gain by white fourth-graders, so the gap widened.

But both groups of kids got better, Why is that a something we want to avoid?

For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education.

For more from Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle

By Jay Mathews  | December 15, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Bill Turque, NAEP, Tom Loveless, achievement gap, math scores  
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Comments

I rarely agree with you, but this time I do. I think the assumption that proponents of the "gap" statistics make is that higher-end achievers can't do any better, or can only do marginally better. As a DCPS parent, I can tell you that the focus is almost entirely on low-performing kids, not children who are doing average but should be doing a lot better (due to learning disabilities, medical problems, etc.).

Posted by: rosepetals64 | December 15, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: jamesrobin333 | December 15, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

The point isn't that the gap is in itself measure of success. Of course it's not. However, any race, class, or gender based achievement is an indicator of a problem somewhere. We can't just look at overall achievement and pretend that there is no gap. The achievement gap must be considered as an indicator of fairness, not just in our classrooms, but in our society as a whole.

Your point that students need attention regardless of their level of achievement is well taken, but I find your point of view irresponsible.

Posted by: rrbarrow1 | December 15, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Jay - score one convert. I've decried the gap somewhat unconditionally over the years, thinking that our school system (Fairfax County Public Schools in suburban Washington, DC) was focusing too much on the haves and not enough on the have nots. My thought was and remains that the haves don't need the attention, but that the have nots do. I still think the FCPS does too little for its have nots - why is it that only Thomas Jefferson High School, the highest performing HS in the nation, gets a seventh period where the faculty is paid by the school system for the additional time? TJ's students need that period less than anyone, yet they're the only ones who get it.
This makes no sense to me.
Still, I want others to get the seventh period. I don't want TJ to lose it.
I hope the cap closes, and believe in my heart that it will close as the have nots get the sort of education they should. But this should be a natural consequence, not a forced result.

Posted by: LoveIB | December 15, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

To clarify, the conversation about the achievement gap has been altered by the requirements of NCLB: the goal is not to make all groups score equally, but to get equal proportions of students from each group to attain the "proficient" level on standaradized tests. You can argue about the scores needed to qualify as "proficient," (most would say, and I agree, that the bar is set very low in most states), but technically the goal will have been reached if all groups get most of their students over that bar.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 15, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

I think the point is fairly taken that the achievement gap should not be the most important metric for determining a school systems success. At the same time I don't think it should be completely ignored, but it's existence should not also be considered to be a fault of the schools necessarily.

As I see it (and as I believe the article is stipulating) if you invest money in raising the scores in a given school, but you inadvertently increase the achievement gap that should not be considered a failure.

Trying to understand why these demographic gaps exist is a lot more complex than looking at which schools are getting the most funding (or an extra paid period) etc.

The achievement gap exists at the crossroads of: Education, home culture (environment), pop culture (popular expectations), media perception, and human nature. I always think it is interesting that people levy SO MUCH responsibility onto the teachers. When in reality it would probably be more effective to point the finger at the parents. If the media came out and said, "parents of children from this school teamed with teachers to really let the children down." Frankly, school administrators could probably name several specific parents who are in the process of hurting their child's future. We are in this regard too sensitive to the idea of parental 'love' knowing no bounds, we should demand that parental love take the necessary steps to ensure their child's future the the best degree that they are capable.

Now, every teach will gladly acknowledge the importance of a supportive home environment, but at the same team there is a vested interest to keep education money in the schools. It is entirely possible that the best thing we could do for the achievement gap could happen outside of school. Like buying the parent a book. Or even, offering support to young needy parents. These ideas have more to do with the practical realities that students spent 66% of their day outside of the school. If you have a student that is READY to learn, then the teaching gets a lot, lot, lot easier.

I haven't even addresses the pop-culture aspect yet... basically the idea is that cultural expectations for behavior go a long way towards setting a child up for failure too.

I believe if we solved the BAD parent / BAD home aspect of education we would make cultural expectations and 7th periods a nominal factor in the overall quality of education. Why is this such a sacrosanct issue? We all know about it right? Think about how much money on education we as a society could save if we were willing to address the root issue?

Posted by: gconrads | December 15, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the continual surprise and head-shaking over the racial achievement gap is pointless and absurd, however I worry about throwing away data. Surely it would be useful to look at the scores of low- and high-performing kids to know whether an intervention is helping the high-end (for instance by introducing more challenging material or better teachers) or the low-end (for instance by adding tutoring) or both (such as by cheating/teaching to the test, which would raise scores for everyone but decrease the gap).

Further, a racial breakdown can provide important clues to the causes of a change in scores. For example, the Turque article renewed my suspicions that the gains in DC largely reflected a demographic shift. I've heard anecdotally that -due in part to the recession- white parents have been moving their kids from private and parochial schools into the public schools. Were the gains simply a result of more smart kids moving into the system? It's necessary to know the answer if we want to understand what works and doesn't work in education, but nobody wants to even ask the question.

Posted by: qaz1231 | December 15, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Spot on as usual, Jay. There are many "gaps" we could look at if gaps were what we were supposed to be addressing. Instead, we're supposed to be addressing learning, so whoever learns is fine with me -- as long as they learn a lot.

In my experience, when I am teaching well, and other teachers are teaching well, low-income kids do actually make more progress than high-income kids. But this is merely a function of how much "head room" they have available. High kids can still maximize their success in the right environment while others make good progress, too.

The key is a highly differentiated approach to instruction so that every child, regardless of ability, gets the teaching they need. To maximize differentiation, we use the "workshop" method of instruction, the only currently available method with differentiation built into it.

Differentiation is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Without it, education is inherently inequitable -- either to the kids on the bottom or the kids on the top. This is why the "workshop" method is the most important instructional method of the century and why it's use should be increased at all grades and in all subject areas.

Posted by: StevePeha | December 15, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Taking notice of the achievement gap is necessary as it is reflective of societal bias (economics and by default race since the poorer neighborhoods tend to be flooded with minorities). You will always have some students who do better than others, but it is important to set a base achievable standard of education for all children, while leaving room for accelerated growth so that those who have the aptitude aren't stagnated. We will alawys need industry leaders and street sweepers alike. However, every child shoul have access to a claen laerning environment, updated books, technology,and quality instructors who actually know how to teach. And services need to be in place for kids who may be struggling due to outside influences. I mean, afterall, it's hard to study when you're hungry, or you can't get afterschool help because you you might get mugged on the way home in the dark, or don't have a supportive family who can even help you with your schoolwork. There are lots of things that act as roadblocks for children, poor kids especially. It's just an unfortunate reality. And economic distribution has a direct impact on educational resources.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | December 15, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

When I was in college education classes many years ago, one point that was reiterated over and over was that the way to assess student improvement was by pre- and post-testing -- comparing what a student knew with what they had learned. I bet that I am not alone in realizing that sometimes the student who learned the most might not have achieved a passing grade for the year. Pass/fail does not particularly reflect learning. Saying this, I do believe that there has to be a standard of performance that indicates that a student is ready to move on to the next level of instruction. I would like to see the idea of "1st grade, second grade . . ." done away with and, instead, have students grouped according to performance level.

Posted by: sdl63 | December 15, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

This kids aren't ignorant, but many of the parents are. If you take a good smart kid and allow him or her to be raised by some ignorant person, it will show.

This will take a generation or two to fix, but it will repair itself.

Posted by: RealTexan1 | December 15, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Here are some gaps (aka disparity) for you, courtesy of a 2004 Kirwan Institute report:
- Since 1957, the proportion of the African American population with a high school degree has increased by 300% (18.4% to 79.2%) and the proportion of the African American population with a 4-year college degree increased by almost 500% (2.9% to 17.2%).
- High school dropout rates for African Americans have decreased substantially in the last thirty years, dropping from 33.5% in 1974 to 17% in 2002.
- College enrollment rates have increased from 36% in 1960 to 57.7% in 2002 for African Americans (an increase of 66%). College enrollment rates for Whites increased by 45% during this forty-four year time period.
- African American child poverty rates were approximately double the rate of white child poverty in the 1990’s.
- African American unemployment has been approximately twice as high as white unemployment, at least since the 1950s.
- The number of incarcerated African Americans surpassed the number of Whites incarcerated in the late 1980s. African Americans made up about 6% of the White population at this time.
- The number of incarcerated African Americans has increased 800% since the 1950s

Why is there so much talk about an education "crisis" when overall educational attainment for African Americans has been gradually improving? Why are we ignoring the tremendous crisis which is signified by the child poverty rates, the constant unemployment disparity, and that what-should-be-shocking 800%?

Posted by: pondoora | December 15, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Jay,
Rarely do I disagree with you more. Your argument makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is trying to eliminate the achievement gap the same thing as hoping that high achieving kids don't improve? I think those of us that work towards eliminating the achievement gap would argue that we should be pushing the higher achieving kids as hard as we can. These aren't mutually exclusive.

The issue with ignoring the gap is one of social justice. Unless you believe (which I know you do not) that low-income kids are intellectually inferior - you must admit that they need more help. With "normal" resources, they are not performing to the same standards as high income kids. If we ignore this, it will only get worse.

So, please tell me, what am I missing? Why is eliminating the achievement gap while continuing to promote high achievement for all learners impossible? And, if you advocate ignoring the achievement gap are you comfortable with it remaining the same - or worsening?

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | December 15, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I must make this correction to my post above.

The African American population was 1/6, not 6%, of the White population.

It's early here on the west coast.

Posted by: pondoora | December 15, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

BrentwoodGuy said “Your argument makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is trying to eliminate the achievement gap the same thing as hoping that high achieving kids don't improve? I think those of us that work towards eliminating the achievement gap would argue that we should be pushing the higher achieving kids as hard as we can. These aren't mutually exclusive.”

I think Jay is right. There’s a goal that all students be proficient. Some kids need a lot of help to get up to proficiency. Given that there are (and always will be) finite resources, many people naturally decide that kids who are already proficient don’t “need” any help to maximize *their* potential. Look at what LoveIB said above: “I still think the FCPS does too little for its have nots - why is it that only Thomas Jefferson High School, the highest performing HS in the nation, gets a seventh period where the faculty is paid by the school system for the additional time? TJ's students need that period less than anyone, yet they're the only ones who get it.”

It’s very frustrating that in most cases, when you focus on the low-achievers, the high-achievers get the short end of the stick, when they have *just as much right to be taught something* as any other kid.

Posted by: athena21 | December 15, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

So, please tell me, what am I missing? Why is eliminating the achievement gap while continuing to promote high achievement for all learners impossible? And, if you advocate ignoring the achievement gap are you comfortable with it remaining the same - or worsening?

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | December 15, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

You're missing that it is impossible to shrink the achievement gap unless low achievers improve at a higher rate than high achievers.

You're also missing that it is a stupid metric to focus on, as compared with general improvement. One group's improvement of 3% is not diminished by another group's 8% improvement.

What's most important is that everybody improved. The schools' focus should be on developing each student to his or her full potential, not on ignoring one group in order to make another group look relatively better.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 15, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Testing, I submitted this morning, but cannot find it. Where did it go?

Posted by: silverstarent2003 | December 15, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I am often blown away by the erudition of posters when they disagree with me, an uncomfortable feeling but there it is. So when they tend to agree with me with the same good grasp of the issues, as I see here, it has a nice glow. Thank you. I am sure tomorrow we will go back to slapping me around, but I continue to thank all the relevant deities for the quality of the readers of this blog. I shudder when I see what my colleagues who write about politics or sports often have to endure.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 15, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

You're missing that it is impossible to shrink the achievement gap unless low achievers improve at a higher rate than high achievers.

You're also missing that it is a stupid metric to focus on, as compared with general improvement. One group's improvement of 3% is not diminished by another group's 8% improvement.

What's most important is that everybody improved. The schools' focus should be on developing each student to his or her full potential, not on ignoring one group in order to make another group look relatively better.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 15, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this - but I'm NOT missing that the low achievers need to improve at a higher rate - that's my whole point! I think that it's great that high achievers had 8% improvement - and we should work so they can have 15% improvement (or some other random, greater number). BUT, this is a gap caused by so many factors that we need to take it into consideration and work to mitigate it. Otherwise, we will continue to enforce a cycle of unbalanced achievement.

It is great that everyone improved, but some need more help to improve than others. I just don't see how these are mutually exclusive.

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | December 15, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

It’s very frustrating that in most cases, when you focus on the low-achievers, the high-achievers get the short end of the stick, when they have *just as much right to be taught something* as any other kid.

Posted by: athena21 | December 15, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

I think this is the myth that is behind this... I taught pre-AP classes for high achievers in the same day that I taught remedial classes and stayed after school to help low-achievers. 2 days a week, I stayed after to give extra help to AP students studying for their exams. Resources can and should be allocated according to need - and high achieving kids have needs too. I'm not denying that. I'm just saying we need to continue focusing on both - I agree with the earlier poster that said data should not be thrown away - it should be used!

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | December 15, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

BrentwoodGuy asks a good question:

"Why is eliminating the achievement gap while continuing to promote high achievement for all learners impossible? And, if you advocate ignoring the achievement gap are you comfortable with it remaining the same - or worsening?"

It is of course not impossible to eliminate the gap while having all learners improve. I bet if we had testing data from the 19th century we would see that the achievement gap between middle class and low-income children has narrowed greatly in the last century and a half, and that is welcome progress since both of those groups of students got better during that time. Theoretically we might be able to eliminate the gap altogether in some Star Trek future, although inequities in birth and the chances of fate are unlikely to be overcome entirely in this century.
The second question is very smart, and I would answer this way. If all groups we are testing--or more importantly all children of every background---continue to improve their skills in reading, writing and math, and as a consequence find they all have more choices in life than their parents did, then I really would not care what the gap was, since over time it will become trivial. The NAEP math test scores Turque wrote about are on a zero to 500 point scale. In the latest tests, black 4th graders scored 212 on average and white 4th graders 270 on average in D.C. That's a 58 point gap. If in some future nirvana where all kids learn quickly from computers adapted to their particular learning styles, and we still have a 58 point gap, but the black kids are at 412 and the white kids at 470, I would be not very concerned about the gap, since a 412 math score would be several grade levels above the 4th grade level of today, and they would all be likely to master calculus by 6th grade, and who knows what by 8th grade. I know, I know. It could be that we will be looking down on 9 year olds who haven't mastered trigonometry in the year 2309, but I doubt it. The higher you get on the scale, the less important the gap. And I strongly suspect we will no longer be talking about blacks and whites in 2309. Instead it will be Earthies and Martians (check out my favorite new scifi book, Rolling Thunder by John Varley), or something like that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 15, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Jay, today you are 100% correct. The only thing I would like to add is a comment about a child's capacity to learn. That capacity is very much a product of parents doing a lot of things right before the child ever reaches school. A child who is properly prepared should over the long run have a greater capacity to process information compared to a child who lacked the necessary early experiences. That child should be expected to do better. Yes, as one poster pointed out low ses students often have more "headroom" which allows for some nice gains, but I believe the well prepared child will over time will do better. The real issue is what to do about the role demographics play in a child's early learning experiences.

Posted by: mamoore1 | December 15, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Even if the primary goal of public education is to help low-achieving minority students, it's counterproductive to frame this as a goal to "close the racial achievement gap."

That's because the gap-closing rhetoric pushes educators toward curricula that create the appearance of closing the gap -- i.e., engaging activities that don't build on prior skills and knowledge, and don't prepare students for what comes next. In math, learn a new geometric shape or "collect data" and make a bar chart. In science, do "inquiry" that doesn't require any understanding of chemistry, biology, or physics. In social studies, learn about medieval African kingdoms without any context of world history or geography.

That sort of fluff dominates the public education curriculum today, and it is largely a consequence of "closing the gap."

John Hoven

Posted by: jhoven | December 15, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I think that part of the issue is a misunderstanding of what constitutes success. Schools, like sports teams, are ultimately not judged by how poorly their third stringers perform, but by how poorly their first stringers perform. The push to close the gap has had the unintended consequence in many cases of sacrificing the performance of the first stringers by watering down curriculum to allwo for percieved increases in performance of the third stringers.

Posted by: willismg1959 | December 15, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
Thanks for the response. If I believed that a "future Nirvana" was likely, I think I would be converted to your viewpoint. Sadly, I don't. I will admit that I need to take a hard look at the latest data. Without doing that, however, I revert to what I have known to be the facts in the past: the achievement gap actually increases as kids get older. While it may only be a 58 point gap in 4th grade, it translates into far higher rates of drop-outs for low-income students in high school. Everyone who reads this blog knows the stats about the effects of having a HS Diploma or a college degree on income. There is a real correlation from this "small" gap in 4th grade to the huge disparity in income for DC youth as they exit the school system. What happens next? Those poorly educated, low-income youth become parents. Their children score lower on the 4th grade NAEP (maybe higher than they did, but still lower) than their more affluent peers. They go on to get lower-paying jobs due to their inferior education. Repeat.

I'll agree that if we get to that point where we're high enough on the scale, the gap won't matter. However, we're far - very, very far - from being there. I, for one, am not willing to wait (because what does that say to our low-income students now? Settle?). We need to keep looking at the achievement gap until it becomes irrelevant.

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | December 15, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

You and I have had our differences on a lot of topics but I agree with you on "the gap." I've been in education long enough to remember when data wasn't disaggregated and educators believed in grading on the curve.

The identification of the achievement gap was a critical step in the realm of school improvement. It was important for educators to recognize that it existed (and still exists) and that they needed to take responsibility not only for teaching, but also for ensuring that all students were learning.

In Howard County our goal is for all students to meet rigorous achievement standards. These days the gap we refer to is the gap between where any of our students, or student groups, are and 100% proficiency. That's the gap that's important. It remains critical for us to acknowledge that we have students who are not achieving, to recognize that socio-economics and cultural may be factors, and then identify instructional approaches that address the learning needs of these students.

Our instructional approaches have helped many of our student groups make great achievement gains over the past five years, however some of our schools have not had as much success with students who receive Free or Reduced Priced Meals. We have much to learn about the role that poverty plays in student achievement and how to address the learning needs of these children.

We have an unwavering commitment to accelerating academic achievement for all students, so I know we'll get there.

Posted by: patti_caplan | December 15, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I think Bill Turque and Brentwood Guy are on point regarding their focus and interest in what the NAEP scores reveal about the achievement gap in DCPS. I cannot understand why you or a majority of the commenters "have no use for the achievement gap" - its a critical metric for determining the value of public education.

For Jay and those who support his position, is the achievement gap not worth the bother because of who “wins” when the gap is narrowed? Do you not have any concern for the groups who lose under the current gap and the consequences of this for individuals and communities?

We cannot thrive and grow as a country if the same sets of groups are constantly at the bottom rung of the ladder: this is a recipe for civil unrest, particularly as the population becomes more diverse.

And, the achievement gap is not just a product of the income gap – it occurs across race and ethnicity holding income constant, and also by language, disability, and gender.

As for those concerned that a focus on narrowing the achievement gap penalizes the highest achievers, guess what - just the opposite happened for DCPS 4th graders. And this is not an anomology - there is a whole body of research that shows how higher achievers are not disadvantaged by efforts to improve the achievement of low-performing students.

We need to stop the myth that focusing on narrowing the achievement gap short changes the highest achieving students - this is inaccurate.

Posted by: RGMSMom | December 15, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Many people who disagree with Jay seem to be saying that it's important to focus on the performance of the kids on the low end. Raising performance for kids on the low end is a different question than "narrowing the gap," which focuses on RELATIVE performance rather than ABSOLUTE performance. We ALL want kids to improve performance (fancy way of saying "learn more and do better in school") in ABSOLUTE terms, particularly those kids who have the most catching up to do. But a metric that focuses on RELATIVE terms can mask improvements in many of the ways others have pointed out (gap is narrowed because high achievers do worse, both groups can do worse but high achievers more than low achievers, etc.) I still think Jay's basic point is right--we should focus on absolute measurements and make sure they are tracking up, instead of comparing moving targets.

Posted by: athena21 | December 15, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

As Tom Loveless has also just pointed out again, one of the most effective ways to depress high-achieving students scores is to stop ability grouping and put them in heterogeneous classes. In fact, having just been through ed school, I would say that this is a primary goal of heterogeneous classes.

So you might want to explain why you're in favor of letting our best students be great while you're also condemning those who want to group students by ability. Or is that not what you meant by getting rid of "gifted" programs?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 15, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Whatever raises achievement best, Cal. I would have no problem grouping AP classes by ability, if that is the word you want to use, because even the slow class will have to shoot for a high target, the AP exam, which their teachers can't dumb down. The problem with low-ability classes, in my view, and as reflected by much of the research, is that those who run them decide the kids can't learn much and thus don't try to teach them much.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 15, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

I should have inserted the word "often" in that last comment. There are some teachers of low-ability classes that work hard to stretch their kids.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 15, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Whatever raises achievement best, Cal. I would have no problem grouping AP classes by ability, if that is the word you want to use, because even the slow class will have to shoot for a high target, the AP exam, which their teachers can't dumb down. The problem with low-ability classes, in my view, and as reflected by much of the research, is that those who run them decide the kids can't learn much and thus don't try to teach them much.


Wow Jay, Just when I thought you were starting to get it you let loose with a statement like this. I work with low end kids for a living, its my choice. I push them as hard as I can. As long as people in positions of influence such as yourself spout of drivel like this the educational reform-ocrcy will continue to go on its merry and profitable way ( being a consultant pays way better than a classroom teacher) and the stalemate will continue

Posted by: mamoore1 | December 15, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

As usual we only look at the top and bottom and forget about the middle. Maybe if we stopped teaching to the tests so much and started teaching, all kids would learn more. Perhaps help with homeless families and low income families would help, too. How can I give homework when there is no home to go hometo, no computer, no educated parent or English speaking guidian/parent available? The gap is large--let's not ignore it and not address it by leaving out some.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | December 15, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

OMG, Jay, we agree, AGAIN. It makes me wonder if you're trying to soften us out for some crazy idea you're planning to pop on your readers soon.

Here's the comment I made on the Turque article:

Of course there numerous reasons why people achieve differently academically. Even within the same family there are “achievement gaps” (I term I hate) between siblings that won’t close no matter how diligently the kids are drilled. And no one cares about it as long as both kids are doing OK.

I say forget trying to close the contrived achievement gap and concentrate instead on getting all kids who are not cognitively disabled to learn to read and write at a functional level that allows them to participate fully in society."

Still, I'm sorry, when it comes to Rhee, I say, live by the sword; die by the sword.

She have to pay for saying things like, “If you live in Georgetown vs if you live in Anacostia, you get two wildly different educational experiences. We’re allowing the color of a child’s skin and their zip code that they live it to dictate their educational attainment levels and their life chances and their life outcomes.” http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/9170

What next, close the zip code gap?

Jay, for a full report on Rhee's incredible effect on widening the achievement gap, you must go to http://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/

Posted by: efavorite | December 15, 2009 9:09 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

I suspect you are simply trying to be provocative. Of course the achievement gap matters. Not as a one-time thing, that could be just a blip, but extrapolate out 10 years the recent 8 point gain for white 4th graders and 3 pt gain for black kids, you get a 40 point gain for whites and a 15 point gain for blacks.

Sure, you might be able to say that black kids caught up to where white kids were 10 years ago, but that's pretty cold comfort. Yes, we want all kids to progress, but it would certainly do us good as a society to see black kids progress a little bit more.

Posted by: dz159 | December 15, 2009 9:31 PM | Report abuse

There is an interesting take on Detroit passing DCPS on the way to the bottom.
Over the weekend there was a heated conference where one speaker said:
"Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, called for jailing and civil lawsuits against anyone in the city's educational system that is not doing his or her share to help properly educate children.

"Somebody needs to go to jail," she said in a tearful address to 500 parents gathered Saturday for the organization's annual breakfast forum. "Somebody needs to pay for this. Somebody needs to go to jail, and it shouldn't be the kids." "

http://www.detnews.com/article/20091212/schools/912120373/detroit-parents-want-dps-teachers--officials-jailed-over-low-test-scores

(This was linked through http://detentionslip.org)

Posted by: edlharris | December 15, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

You've left out perhaps the most likely reason that achievement gaps close: the ceiling effect.

As more people in the higher scoring group top out the range of the scale on which that the test is reliable, the slower the top group's average score will increase. Members of the top group hit the ceiling.

And so, we should EXPECT these gaps to close, simply as a function of a rising scores and tests that are only reliable on a limited range.

Posted by: ceolaf | December 15, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

Studies have found that the achievement gap begins before children enter school. Many urban children enter school several years behind their suburban counterparts. If both groups make one year's progress, one group is ready to move on to the next grade level, while the other is still years away from adequately completing the current grade. In order to catch up, the urban group would have to make several years progress in one year. I think most schools operate on the assumption that only a small number of students need additional help. the rest participate in the grade level curriculum. This continues and the gap widens.

Posted by: Susan50 | December 15, 2009 11:42 PM | Report abuse

The 'achievement gap' is a problem because research shows it is significantly lowered when schools are racially and economically integrated such as Catholic Urban Schools (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987) and in Department of Defense schools (Hinkson, 2007; Kingston, 2002). The intermingling of the races and classes was the original vision of Mann and Dewey in order to protect all of us from an under-educated criminal class. It makes me cringe to learn that the State of Ohio uses 3rd Grade literacy rates for budget projections of future prison cells. Why NOT use this information to provide intensive instruction if we know the link to criminal behavior? Why are we happy to spend $25,000/yr providing room and board to convicts but resistent to supporting disadvantaged youth while available academic interventions could change their lives?

Posted by: mrpozzi | December 16, 2009 4:29 AM | Report abuse

The problem with the data is that it is extremely flawed. Trying to shape education policy with test scores is like trying to judge the health of the economy by looking at Black Friday sales.

From my personal experience in PG County, it seems to me that a disproportionate amount of time and energy are focused on the low achievers. There is all kids of tutoring, mentorship and extra help to get kids past the HSAs (which are low-level 10th grade tests). There are AP classes that are shelved to free the teachers up for HSA remediation classes and project classes.

As a result, we are basically giving most of even our top students a 10th grade education. Not good enough.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 16, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Now I get it, Jay - saying the achievement gap doesn't matter is a way of getting Rhee off the hook for widening it.

Sorry - at the very least, she's going to have to explain how her reforms are helping white kids more than black kids. And no assertions, please. We have plenty of data now for her to refer to.

Posted by: efavorite | December 16, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Mr Pozzi - I haven't seen the study you mention, but already know the circumstances are different from most urban schools. People who send their kids to catholic schools already have initiative and money to do so and people who send their kids to DoD schools have a steady income and strong community supports. No comparison to the typical inner city environment.

Still interesting, though, because it implies that with these advantages, minority kids could do a lot better.

Posted by: efavorite | December 16, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

for mamoore1---notice my followup message that added the word "often" to my statement. I have met many teachers like yrself doing wonderful work with low achieving kids. Unfortunately I have also observed many who are not trying very hard.

For ceolaf---your comment on the ceiling effect is very interesting. I will have to do some reporting on that.

For efavorite---can't get me as a Rhee apologist on this one. I have been complaining about the achievement gap since long before I ever heard of her.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 16, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

For efavorite.

Not could do better .... they actually do better. As you noted, it is the STRONG COMMUNITY TIES/SUPPORT that make the difference. We must work to bring those ties and support to the 'typical inner city environment' by linking community social support services to the schools as Mayor Fenty promised.

Posted by: mrpozzi | December 16, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Jay that focusing on the achievement gap is not particularly useful. I think the reason that people do, and will not take pleasure when one group increases by say 5 points and another by 8, thereby widening the gap, can be explained psychologically.
There is a principle, relative happiness, which predicts that people measure their own happiness, not by any absolute standard but by comparing their own levels of happiness relative to others nearby. So if Ralph gets a raise of $5,000 but his colleague Ned gets a raise of $10,000, Ralph's satisfaction actually decreases despite his absolute situation improving. Ironically, Ralph would be happier if his salary dropped by $3,000 if Ned's dropped by $5,000.
It isn't just keeping up with the Joneses, it's also about not sinking as fast.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | December 16, 2009 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Most people hold the Boasian viewpoint that all people have equal innate mental ability despite differences in social class and ethnic backgrounds. I hold another point of view, the Galtonian perspective, which sees IQ as a highly heritable mental trait that has a strong determinative influence on academic achievement and attainment of social class. Galtonians acknowledge that higher social class parents tend to have substantially higher IQs than lower social class parents, and thus the upscale parents will tend to pass genes to their children that will engender higher IQs in the next generation. Galtonians also see ethnic differences in IQ as largely the result of heritable genetic differences between ethnic groups.

So from the Galtonian viewpoint, social class and ethnoracial academic achievement gaps are simply a reflection of differences in innate mental ability. We therefore should stop trying to convince ALL students that each and every student has the innate ability to be a scientist, a doctor, a lawyer etc. This type of unrealistic encouragement is of course silly and ultimately destructive and frustrating to lower IQ youth. Instead we should encourage ALL students to achieve to the best of their ability. The result will be that students of ethnic groups and social classes that have higher innate general cognitive ability (such as Chinese, Koreans, Jews, high-caste Indians and children of highly accomplished professional parents) will of course tend to have a higher proportion that will possess the innate ability to excel at academic pursuits. Conversely students of ethnic groups and social classes that have lower innate general cognitive ability (such as Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and children of welfare-dependent high school drop-out parents) will of course tend to have a higher proportion that will not possess the innate ability to excel at academic pursuits.

This Galtonian viewpoint is simply viewing things as they really are, not as the way Boasians wish they were.

Posted by: rifraf | December 17, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

This is absolutely fascinating to me as the "achievement gap" is something which is something we are always hearing about in the UK too. While we want all children to succeed to the best of their ability, there definitely is an issue about the brighter children and how their needs are not always met. Very counter-intuititive and convincing.

Posted by: sarahebner | December 17, 2009 6:29 AM | Report abuse

Jay, sure I can still "get" you. Just because you've felt a certain way for a long time doesn't mean referring to it now doesn't serve a newly relevant purpose.

mr pozzi - I see your point. I also recall Rhee mentioning something about a Parent academy a while back but haven't heard a word about it since. I must say, I wasn't very hopeful about it. It has to be really good and parents have to come to it for it to work.

Posted by: efavorite | December 17, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Jay,
Closing the acheivement gap is not inconsistent with raising the bar for our advanced students. Top performing school systems around the world (e.g. Finland, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore) have done both quite effectively. Why do you think that our schools can not do both as well?

Posted by: erin_m_johnson | December 21, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

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