In Defense of “Achievement Gap Mania”

October 19, 2011

(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.