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Misreading the Achievement Gap: A Tale of Bi-Partisan Failure

It's not student achievement, but student equity that should concern us, says this Professor of Education.
 
 
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It took about twenty years, and then another secondary ten years, but the hysterical and misleading A Nation at Risk under the Reagan administration successfully kicked off three decades of public school accountability.

In the beginning, the hysteria revolved around several points that were factually inaccurate, but publicly effective: (1) U.S. public schools were failing, (2) U.S. students were weak, and possibly lazy, but their schools didn't do much to challenge them, and (3) because of this cycle of lazy students in failing schools, U.S. international competitiveness was in dire straits.

These claims and the discourse grew from the White House and became recurrent and unquestioned talking points in the media, among the public, and by politicians. At first, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public education built state-based standards and testing cycles that targeted primarily students (best typified by the exit exams designed to hold students accountable and insure the value of the high school diploma) and then gradually the schools themselves with the rise of school report cards.

The initial twenty-year cycle of state-based school accountability also spawned governors as education reformers—most notably the fraudulent Texas Miracle during George W. Bush's tenure in Texas that helped bolster his run for the White House. Bush as education governor became education president and brought Rod Paige along as Secretary of Education to convert the Texas Miracle into a federal version of the state-based accountability movement, now popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In 2012, two important aspects of NCLB are worth considering: (1) NCLB has been repeatedly praised as a bi-partisan effort, but we rarely consider that bi-partisanship by itself doesn't insure quality (and in education, we have ample evidence bi-partisanship is evidence of failure), and (2) NCLB has also been credited for raising national awareness of the achievement gap -- yet the achievement gap itself is a seriously flawed and limited mechanism for evaluating students, as I will examine below.

Misreading Education "Gaps"

The single greatest bi-partisan success of NCLB, the argument has been, is that the federal government began forcing all schools to address the achievement gaps among subgroups of students, impacting significantly how schools identified, tested, and displayed test data related to English language learners, African American students, and special needs students.

Here, though, the use of the term "achievement gap" has never been challenged or examined for what agenda it fulfills or how it positions our entire national view of students, teachers, and schools.

Like the "no excuses" mantra "poverty is not destiny," the use of "achievement gap" redirects the focus on the tests themselves, the students as agents of the test data, and the teachers as agents of the students as test takers. Again, just as the "no excuses" mantras accomplish, "achievement gap" creates a myopic view of agency—the rugged individual—that decontextualizes children from their lives outside of schools and students, teachers, and schools from the society and communities in which they exist.

The dynamic created by NCLB's focus on the achievement gap (including federal funding to support addressing that gap) revealed to the public that such gaps exist—although anyone working in education or examining test data throughout the twentieth century knows that standardized scores have always been and remain most strongly correlated to the exact characteristics used to identify subgroups of students (language proficiency, parental income, parental education level, race, gender). By situating the accountability movement within schools and focusing the process on test scores, the public and political conclusions drawn from the identified achievement gap included that, once again, schools were failing, but resulted in a new claim that teachers were the primary cause of that failure.

The achievement gap, then, serves the interests of the "no excuses" reform movement that is determined to discount the influence of poverty on the lives of children and their learning—not the interests of these children or families trapped in the growing plight of poverty in the U.S., and not universal public education as a mechanism of democracy and human empowerment.

Instead of referring to and addressing the achievement gap, I have recommended focusing on the "equity gap"—a terminology that contextualizes where "achievement gap" decontextualizes.

Acknowledging and addressing the equity gap recognizes that student test data are markers for a complex matrix of conditions—not simply the effort or aptitude of students, not the quality or effort of their teachers.

Equally viable as an alternative to using "achievement gap" is Charlotte Carter-Wall's examination of the attainment gap in a new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)—The Role of aspirations, attitudes and behaviour in closing the educational attainment gap.

This report, building on previous studies by JRF (see the references provided by Carter-Wall), provides a key finding that challenges arguments that children and the families living in poverty embody attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that cause the poor test scores of those students. This is powerful since it runs counter to the rugged individualism assumptions underlying "no excuses" reforms.

The JRF study helps clarify Berliner's research showing that out-of-school factors overwhelm in-school factors in terms of student outcomes. As well, Barton and Coley (2007, 2009) have established similar evidence that couches the "achievement gap" in the broader social, community, and home characteristics that "no excuses" reformers and politicans tend to ignore or discount.

Linda Darling-Hammond has also challenged the validity of "no excuses" reform perpetuated by addressing the "achievement gap":

"There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns....

"These issues were vividly illustrated in last week’s Capitol Hill briefing on the impact of poverty on education and what we can do about it. Sponsored jointly by the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the panel got beyond the increasingly implausible 'no excuses' rhetoric, using new evidence to examine the relationship between income and educational outcomes — as well as about strategies that have succeeded in reducing this relationship."

NCLB must not be praised as a bi-partisan watershed moment when the U.S. exposed and confronted the achievement gap. Instead we must acknowledge that the term "achievement gap" works to mask and even ignore the corrosive influence of poverty on the lives and learning of children.

Our political and public discourse must turn to confronting and changing the equity gap, the attainment gap, and the income gap, since these all recognize the full context of both living and learning in either poverty or affluence.

But what of the most recent claims of teacher quality even if we move to these new terms and understandings?

Teacher Quality and the Attainment Gap

A Nation at Risk created and fueled a series of inaccurate claims about students and schools in the U.S., but one of the most powerful and misleading recent additions to those claims has been the assault on the "bad" teacher. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee—among many others—have stated and repeated that teachers are the most important factor in the learning of children. Again similar to responses to the achievement gap, claims about teachers have been primarily allowed without full or critical challenges in the media or the public. Briefly, then, consider these inaccurate and conflicting claims currently being posed about teacher quality as it impacts student learning:

  • "No excuses" reformers make two conflicting claims: Teachers are the most important element in student learning, but bad teachers are the sole reason our schools have historically and currently failed students. These bizarre claims are compounded by another misunderstanding common in the public—that teachers canbe to blame for school failure. Few political or public discussions of the role of teachers in school quality acknowledge that teachers have never, and do not now, run schools.
     
  • "No excuses" reformers also call for the need to recruit the best and brightest into education while simultaneously dismantling academic freedom and due process for teachers, as well as endorsing Common Core State Standards to prescribe what teachers will teach, how they will teach that content, and that those teachers will be evaluated and fired based on tests and standards not designed or endorsed by them. [Note that "no excuses" reformers depend on the achievement gap discourse decontextualizing test data from social causes in order to shift the burden of learning to the teachers.]

    Reframing the achievement gap as the equity or attainment gap will be of little value unless we also reframe the discussion of teacher quality by placing that debate within the equity/attainment gap discussion. That shift must include the following:
  • Teacher quality matters, but it (and school characteristics) correlates with only about 33% to as little as 14% of student outcomes. As Jim Horn explains:

    "So what can we do?  We can continue to improve our teaching in every way we can, even as we must begin to alter the ravaging effects of poverty and to advocate for policies that help to limit the effects the poverty.  Health care, nutrition, housing, transportation, jobs, and integrated and diverse schools that can take take advantage of the power of shared social capital."

  • The "no excuses" reformers also make repeatedly another conflicting set of claims: schools are historical and current failures, but they are the mechanism by which we can change society (and that of course must be done by firing the "bad" teachers and hiring the best and brightest into what is increasing a service industry). Thus, the teacher quality debate must be framed in terms of how it often perpetuates inequity of attainment for children, since children of color, English language learners, and special needs students tend to be assigned disproportionately to new/inexperienced teachers as well as un-/under-qualified teachers—a dynamic increased by the rise of commitments to Teach for America.

If the achievement gap is a metric exposing problems the U.S. must confront (it is), and if teacher quality matters (it does), and if our schools are a mechanism for reforming society's persistent scar of inequity (they could be), the ways in which we talk about "gaps" must first be reformed so that we come to understand that living and learning in poverty is a reality of inequity for far too many children in the U.S., 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 52 weeks of each year.

 

Recommended Further Reading

Diane Ravitch on Texas Miracle: The Texas Miracle Revisited and 20 years later, debunking the ‘Texas Miracle’

A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education

Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings

 

References

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2007, September). The family: America’s smallest school. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 27 December 2007, from http://www.ets.org/...

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2009). Parsing the achievement gap II. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 8 May 2009, from http://www.ets.org/...

Berliner, David C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 25 August 2009 from http://epicpolicy.org/...

Hirsch, D. (2007, September). Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, North Yorkshire, UK. Retrieved 27 December 2007 from http://www.jrf.org.uk/...

Klein, S. P., Hamilton, L. S., McCaffrey, D. F. & Stecher, B. M. (2000) What do test scores in Texas tell us? Issue Paper, Rand Education. Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation. Retrieved 20 August 2009 from http://www.rand.org/...

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from http://www.edtrust.org/...

 

P.L. Thomas is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University.
 
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