In Defense of “Achievement Gap Mania”

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the early appearance of the 2011 NAEP has given me reason to update a project, leaving me with some interesting charts to burn off. The above chart measures the national White-Black achievement gap for all four of the main NAEP exams for the 2003-2009 period. Mind you, that on these exams, 10 points is approximately equal to a year worth of average academic progress. These are White scores minus Black scores, with the 2003 gaps in Blue and the 2009 gaps in Red.

In Jay’s post below, you can watch a Fordham discussion that includes debate over whether we have fallen into the grip of “achievement gap mania.” If so, we have precious little to show for it. We did have some narrowing of the achievement gap between 2003 and 2009, but at two and a half plus grade level gaps in all four subjects. Start your low-calorie, carrot juice diet and mark your calendar for 2075 or so, assuming that we can maintain today’s glacial pace of closing.

The news is approximately as dismal on the White-Hispanic front:

While I do sympathize with the argument that we need to get everyone to understand their stake in education reform, I must say that there is a reason why people are passionate about achievement gaps. The term “disgraceful” does not begin to describe the catastrophic failure represented in the charts above. Black and Hispanic children score little better than what the average 1st to 2nd grade Anglo student would score on a 4th grade reading test. It’s only the developmentally critical literacy acquisition window after all.

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.

The terrible truth of course is that our public education system is pervasively classist to an extent that goes far deeper than the naive equity funding attorneys ever seemed to grasp. If we auctioned the limited supply of high quality public school seats on Ebay rather than covertly through mortgages, perhaps all of this would more transparent. If we could tag our highly effective instructors, we could watch a time-lapse film of them fleeing dysfunctional school systems for the leafy suburbs and/or leaving the profession entirely. Increased resources could in theory ameliorate these problems, but strangely enough they didn’t.

Why? Paul Hill said it best:

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. 

The sad thing is, some are so desperate to maintain the above paragraph that they are willing to ignore the consequences, including the two charts above. They comfort themselves with excuses. 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 alot better than this. We focus on achievement gaps not because it is expedient, but because it is necessary.

24 Responses to In Defense of “Achievement Gap Mania”

  1. Greg Forster says:

    What if the shoe is on the other foot? What if the main reason we can’t make progress on the achievement gap is because of middle class complacency about the quality of their middle class schools and their limited thinking about what is possible in education and how to achieve it – and these things are themselves the product of achievement gap mania?

    The best thing we can do to improve inner-city schools is quit framing education reform around inner-city schools. Like Milton always said, show me a program for the poor and I’ll show you a poor program.

  2. George Mitchell says:

    The graphic information provided by Matt underscores the extent and longstanding nature of the gap. The failure to make significant progress should spur more discussion of why it persists. One reason, IMO, is that middle and upper class parents think their kids are doing fine. But Peterson, Greene, Hess, and others show us that is not the case.

    Is America capable of discussing two education problems, i.e., the scores at the bottom AND top of the gap charts? I hope so, as I think these problems are related. Such a discussion won’t occur as long as the average parent thinks his children are doing OK. That, in turn, makes continuation of the gap quite likely.

  3. matthewladner says:


    I agree that the reform discussion needs to be broader than the failures of inner city schools. I think we should attack middle class complacency.

    I don’t however believe that the complete disaster in our inner cities has received too much attention. Still far too little in my opinion. I am however happy to support broad based policies like school choice, school grading and earned promotion that will improve both suburban and urban schools.

  4. matthewladner says:


    I totally agree with you.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Perhaps it isn’t so much a matter of how much attention as what kind. To date, the focus on inner cities and the achievement gap has been largely shackled at the leg to redistributionist ideology and assumptions. How can we make this both/and by talking about unleashing innovation in the education sector as a whole in order to do right by everyone and move toward both meritocracy and enterprise as social goals?

    Like Milton said, a society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom ahead of equality will get a high degree of both.

  6. matthewladner says:

    Milton was correct. It’s not the gap per se that bothers me, it is the pathetically low inner city scores and massive warehousing of kids.

    If our Black and Hispanics close the gap with Anglos circa 2009, but our Anglos circa 2021 are scoring higher than ever, I won’t mind much whether the “gap” increases or closes.

    What I want are broad policies that improve scores for everyone. As a practical matter, all of these policies discourage warehousing in different ways, and so tend to produce bigger gains for traditionally disadvantaged kids.

    The gap closing is a bonus. What is important are the gains.

  7. AHLondon says:

    You have a follow up summary coming on the hows to do better, right?

  8. AHLondon says:

    Grrr. Arggg. I must remember that the email updates for this blog do not show comments. I will remember to check for comments before commenting.

  9. […] shows that Hess’ argument is off-base. George W. Bush Institute scholar Matthew Ladner challenges much of Hess’ argument yesterday in his own analysis of data from the National Assessment of […]

    • George Mitchell says:

      The observations from Dropout Nation add nothing to the discussion. Who/what is Dropout Nation? I freely admit not being up to speed on the education blogosphere.

      As I read Hess and Ladner, Matt by no means says Rick is “off-base.” Rather, Matt reminds us as to how substantial the gap is.

      The broader point, IMO, is that the issues highlighted by Matt, Rick, and others have created a “buzz” within a rather narrow world of folks. I wish it were otherwise.

      • matthewladner says:


        Dropout Nation is written by RiShawn Biddle. You are right that I didn’t say that Rick is off base, in fact I even said that I agree with Rick that we ought not to base ed reform entirely on achievement gaps.

        I do however think that Rick is off base in a sense when he expresses concerns about advantaged kids being shortchanged because of the focus on low performers. It’s not that I don’t think tradeoffs ever occur (they do) it is rather that I think that the public school system is profoundly slanted in favor of the wealthy in a variety of ways- most obviously in the distribution of effective teachers.

        RiShawn may have infered from my post that my attitude about the sort of tradeoffs Rick raised is something like “um, well, cry me a river” because, well, that is in fact the case.

        Rick is right that a focus on achievement gaps could be raised to the level of an irrational fetish. We could for instance in theory see someone celebrating the closing of an achievement gap driven entirely by a decline in scores among advantaged students.

        I however haven’t seen anyone doing that.

      • George Mitchell says:


        From following Jay’s blog (and a few others) in recent weeks, I wonder about the impact of supposedly provocative offerings from individuals such as Rick Hess. Is there evidence to suggest that elected officials pay attention? Or, as I would argue, is the “buzz” confined to a narrow slice of the usual suspects?

        While I personally agree with Rick’s thesis, my concern is that his and related arguments are largely disconnected from actual policy-making and legislation.

        I speculate that support for actual reform in K-12 education is accepted by 10-15% of the electorate. I am perhaps too optimistic. This is three decades after A Nation At Risk supposedly put the country on alert.

        As interesting as your forthcoming NAEP analysis might be, it will mean nothing if “reform” scholars and their financial supporters don’t take a hard look at what is happening….or, what is not happening.

      • matthewladner says:


        The 10-15% figure is far too low if by “support” you mean answer an opinion poll in a favorable way, sadly far too high if by “support” you mean actively engaging in the issue.

        The difference between welfare reform and education reform is that the interests maintaining the status-quo in welfare had nothing like the political strength of those maintaining the education status quo. Welfare reform swept across the nation like George Patton’s tanks, while education reform has been trapped in WWI style trench warfare.

        We never had riots on the streets in favor of welfare reform, just a strong aversion to it by the public and a left-right elite consensus that AFDC was injurious to the long term interests of the poor themselves. There is now a similar left-right consensus that the way we operate public schools is injurious to the interests of the poor.

        I believe that this recognition has been extremely consequential. It may not be in and of itself sufficient, but it is necessary.

      • George Mitchell says:


        My “10-15%” guess involved citizens engaged enough to affect political action. In that regard, you likely are correct that my number is too high.


      • Well, George, given that I am the primary reason why Rick has been rather defensive about his thesis (, and, I think I have added plenty to the debate. And so have plenty of others. But you are entitled to your position. Thanks for reading. And keep reading, if you so choose.

        By the Way: I didn’t write that Matt says that Rick is off-base. What I did write was that Matt’s analysis is more data that proves lie to Hess’ overall argument.

        As for whether we need more than 10-to-15 percent of voters to support school reform? Well, historically, most movements in this country have had little support beyond core activists. That’s just how it works in a large, diverse nation. The 18th amendment that led to Prohibition had little support beyond a core group of folks opposed to the free flow of liquor. Same for the civil rights movement; the Freedom Riders of 1961 were only supported by a third of the population (if that many, depending on the question asked). The conservative movement was also in a similar position in 1964.

        But history has shown that you don’t need large numbers supporting the particular issue at hand. You need a broad coalition of folks with similar views, who can then work the political wedges and garner enough voters to elect politicians who are supportive of their positions. The Anti-Saloon League mastered this by teaming up with the women’s suffrage movement and other progressives of the time; civil rights activists did the same five decades later. And conservatives managed such coalitions during the 1970s and 1980s as part of a big tent of evangelicals, libertarians and the Leave-Us-Alone coalition.

      • George Mitchell says:

        You are “the primary reason why Rick has been rather defensive about his thesis”? Doubt that.

        “…Matt’s analysis is more data that proves lie to Hess’ overall argument.” “Proves lie”? Not even close.

  10. JasonM says:

    Yes, well, what about inherited differences in IQ between racial groups?

    That would certainly be the Occam’s Razor here, but who needs a parsimonious and highly predictive explanation when it flies in the face of our piously cherished egalitarianism…

    • George Mitchell says:

      Apart from the scientific merits of his thesis, the practical thrust of JasonM’s explanation is there needs to be little or no further debate about policy and programs. For him, achievement outcomes are largely pre-determined. I believe strongly that achievement levels for all students, of all racial groups, would be higher if policies of universal parent choice were implemented. Whether or not there still would be gaps is immaterial. What matters is that current achievement levels can and should be raised for all students.

    • matthewladner says:

      I don’t believe that we have a single state achieving at such a high level to make potential ceiling effects the least bit relevant to discussion of education reform.

      We now see inner city kids in places like Boston, Miami and NYC starting to outscore some statewide averages on NAEP. Washington DC children have already shown enormous progress as well.

      Fatalism is for people who either want to pork out the public school system with dentists and social workers with money we don’t have OR abolish the public school system entirely. The former group is far larger than the latter, but neither is a part of what I regard as the adult conversation regarding ed reform.

  11. George Mitchell says:

    Those wishing to weigh in on the topic raised by JasonM should first consider reading “Mainstream Science on Intelligence,” in the Dec. 13, 1994 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

  12. Greg Forster says:

    The empirical research on school choice consistently finds that it raises outcomes both for students who use it and for students in affected public schools. These are top quality studies by the nation’s leading researchers – and they’re looking at programs that are severely limited in their ability to serve students effectively. There’s every reason to believe that programs uninhibited by such limitations would produce even bigger impacts.

    So the evidence clearly establishes that education policy interventions have some impact on outcomes, and it at least suggests that better interventions could have bigger impacts. As long as that’s the case, who the hell cares about this meaningless academic dispute over the heritability of intelligence? Shouldn’t we be focused on following the evidence where it shows us a clear path to improving outcomes?

    Or if that doesn’t grab you, how about this: universal choice is a no-cost opportunity to test the heritability thesis empirically. Put up or shut up!

  13. […] “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. […]

  14. […] clearly shows that Hess’ argument is off-base. George W. Bush Institute scholar Matthew Ladner challenges much of Hess’ argument yesterday in his own analysis of data from the National Assessment of […]

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