An Interview with Rick Hess: The Achievement Gap – Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill? or a Molehill Out of a Mountain?

Sep 26, 2011 by

Michael F.Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Your new piece out in National Affairs deals with “our achievement gap mania.”  What do you mean by this, and what prompted you to write the article?

A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in an era of federally driven educational accountability focused on narrowing the chasms between the test scores and graduation rates of students of different incomes and races. The result was a whole new way of speaking and thinking about the issue: “Achievement gaps” became reformers’ catch phrase, and closing those gaps became the goal of American education policy.  Today, the notion of “closing achievement gaps” has become synonymous with education reform. Such sentiments are admirable, and helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important aim.

But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing. In their glib self-confidence, the champions of that effort have refused to confront its costs and unintended consequences, and have been far too quick to silence skeptics by branding them blind defenders of the status quo (if not calling them outright racists). The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform. And its animating principles — including its moral philosophy — are, at best, highly questionable. Indeed, the relentless focus on gap-closing has transformed school reform into little more than a less objectionable rehash of the failed Great Society playbook.

  1. Clarify a little more.  How has the focus on achievement gaps “narrowed the scope of schooling” and “stifled educational innovation?”

When a nation focuses all its energies on boosting the reading and math scores of the most vulnerable students, there is neither much cause nor much appetite for developing and pursuing education strategies capable of improving American schools overall.

Consider the case of school choice. Today, for all the vague talk of innovation, charter schools and school vouchers rarely do more than allow poor, urban students to move from unsafe, horrific schools into better conventional-looking schools. The leading brands in charter schooling, for instance, almost uniformly feature traditional classrooms; an extended school day, school year, or both; and a reliance on directive pedagogy attuned to the needs of disadvantaged students. In other words, these are terrific 19th-century schools. One has to search long and hard among the nation’s more than 5,000 charter schools to find the handful that are experimenting with labor-saving technologies, technology-infused instruction, or new staffing models better suited to the 21st century.

Furthermore, the intense focus on gap-closing has led to a notion of “innovation” dedicated almost entirely to driving up math and reading scores and graduation rates for low-income and minority students. Promising innovations that promote science, foreign-language learning, or musical instruction have garnered little public investment or acclaim. Even in terms of math and reading, there is not much interest in interventions that do not show up on standardized state assessments. The Obama administration’s $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund — designed to spur investments in innovative educational providers and practices — specified that applicants needed to “demonstrate their previous success in closing achievement gaps, improving student progress toward proficiency, increasing graduation rates, or recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals.” There is, of course, considerable merit to such a focus. But one undeniable consequence is that it has dramatically narrowed the scope of education research and development — to the inevitable detriment of the nation’s schools.

  1. How has it “hollowed out public support for school reform?”

Achievement gap mania has signaled to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about their kids. Given that only about one household in five even contains school-age children — and given that two-thirds of families with children do not live in underserved urban neighborhoods, or do not send their kids to public schools, or otherwise do not stand to benefit from the gap-closing agenda — the result is a tiny potential constituency for achievement-gap reform, made up of perhaps 6% or 7% of American households.

Because middle-class parents and suburbanites have no personal stake in the gap-closing enterprise, reforms are tolerated rather than embraced. The most recent annual Gallup poll on attitudes toward schooling reported that just 20% of respondents said “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” was the most important of the nation’s education challenges.  The implication is that most Americans, even those with school-age children, currently see education reform as time and money spent on other people’s children. This makes school reform a losing vote for suburban legislators — one that they can take because it’s the right thing to do, but that is calculated to burn rather than win political capital. The focus on achievement gaps makes for bad politics by making it hard to build broad, sustained support for reform.

  1. And how are its animating principles “highly questionable,” at best?

If anyone could be considered the patron saint of gap-closing, it is 20th-century philosopher John Rawls. Rawls authored the landmark treatise A Theory of Justice, which argued that a just society should ensure, according to the “difference principle,” that any social and economic inequalities are arranged for the benefit of society’s least advantaged group. This would seem to be a clear justification for shortchanging most students in order to focus on those at the bottom.

And yet even Rawls’s view was far more nuanced than that of today’s gap-closers. Indeed, Rawls cautioned:

“Now the difference principle . . . does not require society to try to even out handicaps as if all were expected to compete on a fair basis in the same race. But the difference principle would allocate resources in education, say, so as to improve the long-term expectation of the least favored. If this end is attained by giving more attention to the better endowed, it is permissible; otherwise not.”

It would be comforting if gap-closers even occasionally took seriously Rawls’s warning that “it is not in general to the advantage of the less fortunate to propose policies which reduce the talents of others.” Instead, they dismiss such concerns with moral indignation or specious claims that their preferred remedies entail no tradeoffs. In doing so, they duck the unpleasant reality that we cannot do everything: Doubling down on one area of education reform inevitably means easing up somewhere else.

  1. Could the fact that reading is encouraged in certain families have something to do with the achievement gap?  And television and video games- could these be other extraneous variables of import?

Sure.  Before they even enter the classroom, many children from low-income and minority households are at a distinct educational disadvantage. Research demonstrates that children from more educated families tend to start school with much larger vocabularies, more exposure to the written word, more time having been read to, and more of the habits that make for a responsible, successful student. Kindergarteners from low-income households typically have a vocabulary of about 5,000 words, compared to the typical 20,000-word vocabulary of their more advantaged peers. The disparity results, in part, from the fact that many low-income children don’t attend pre-school; low-income parents speak to their children about one-third as much as parents who are professionals; low-income parents read to their children much less than do other parents; and low-income children watch much more television than do their peers.

The implication is that, from the very beginning, disadvantaged and advantaged children have different educational needs and stand to benefit from different kinds of instruction. 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.

  1. Can you give another example of the costs of this focus on the achievement gaps?

The cost of the relentless focus on gap-closing is perhaps most evident when it comes to advanced instruction, particularly Advanced Placement courses. Pressure to close gaps has meant pushing more disadvantaged students into AP courses, even when it has compromised rigor or standards.

Nationally, the number of high-school graduates who had taken at least one AP exam rose from 1 million in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008. Enthusiasts argue that such expansion entails no downsides, and that enrolling more students in advanced classes doesn’t dilute instructional quality. Unfortunately, the nation’s AP teachers tell a different story. In a 2009 study, education pollsters Duffett and Farkas noted that just 14% of AP teachers believed that the growth in AP enrollment was caused by growth in the pool of qualified students. Sixty-five percent, meanwhile, said their school’s policy was to encourage as many students as possible to take AP courses and exams, regardless of qualification. Indeed, just 29% said their school limited access to AP via prerequisites such as maintaining a minimum grade point average or obtaining teacher approval. Duffett and Farkas reported that this phenomenon was most evident in high-poverty schools, where 34% of AP teachers believed “administrators [were] pushing unqualified minority or low-income students into AP” and 50% said that their African-American and Hispanic students were not adequately prepared for AP instruction.

The result? Fifty-six percent of the AP teachers surveyed said that too many students were in over their heads; 39% reported that the aptitude of AP students and their capacity to do the work had declined, while just 16% said it had improved. And the College Board, the organization that administers the AP program, reports that the share of AP exams receiving the minimum passing score of 3 or better declined by four percentage points between 2003 and 2008.

There can be unfortunate, if often unacknowledged, consequences when we seek to universalize excellence. Such efforts can dilute instructional quality, make it tougher for teachers to go as deep or as fast as they otherwise might, and distract attention from advanced students. Given these mixed results, how did the gap-closing gospel become the organizing principle of American schooling?

  1. Does talking about the achievement gap take attention away from other issues?

Yes, and that’s the main point of the article.  The problem with achievement-gap mania is not that it is necessarily wrong; the problem is that its self-confident purveyors have been uniformly uninterested in the cost, complications, or consequences of their crusade. The result has been to effectively stifle debate, alienate most parents from the school-reform agenda, and insist that a flawed, mechanistic vision of schooling ought to steer our course in the 21st century.

The response to this problem cannot be to dispute the moral claims of our most vulnerable children. Rather, the solution is to ensure that these claims are placed in their proper context — weighed against the competing claims of other children and of society at large. The obligation of serious reformers, then, is to rekindle the debate. They have a responsibility to help lawmakers, educators, and foundations understand that, while achievement gaps are important, they are just one challenge in a vast education landscape. Reformers must insist that the demands of gap-closing crusaders be subjected to rigorous, careful scrutiny. And they must re-open the world of education policy to fresh ways of envisioning what American schooling can be.

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