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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

More thoughts about roses and names

In my latest post, I discussed how some of the leadership roles in education are misnamed. Still in that frame of mind, another misnomer reared its ugly head—and this one is no fragrant rose. The term is “achievement gap.”

If you’ve been in or around education in the last 45 or 50 years, you’ve heard the term achievement gap repeatedly. It was coined back in the 1960s to refer to the difference in educational performance between whites and non-whites. It came to be documented clearly on the periodic NAEP assessments, first administered in 1969. The term became standard fair in any discussion of perceived problems in American education and eliminating it became the goal and rallying cry in many quarters. No one likes the idea of an “achievement gap” in the education of a country supposedly committed to educating all of its students.

Just prior to the organization of the board that developed NAEP, another event occurred which I remember well. It was Sputnik. This was the first satellite ever sent into space by man and it was put in place by (horror of horrors!) the Russians! Anyone who was not alive at that time cannot appreciate the abject fear this induced in the American people. The knee-jerk reaction of many was to look around for someone to blame, and guess who they found. Yep, you guessed it—education. It had to be that schools weren’t producing enough graduates who went into science! Congress passed legislation to address the perceived problem, including low interest National Defense Student Loans for college students. I was the beneficiary of one of those early loans.

The fact is, however, that education was not to blame. The blame belonged on the American people who, after World War II, were focused on consumer goods provided by a booming economy, and on investors who saw money to be made in those products rather than in space, and in a government that refused to believe that Russia was willing to commit itself to being first in space. But blaming schools was much easier, so our leaders decided we needed to develop NAEP to keep tabs on these “failing” schools. And so was the “achievement gap” discovered.

Since the 1960s there has been a never ending litany of the chorus–“Our schools are failing!” Why Johnny Can’t Read, A Nation at Risk, the 2012 Council on Foreign Relations Report, the PISA tests, the PIRLS tests, Waiting for Superman, to name a few. The script was “our schools are not “rigorous” enough, we can’t compete economically with the rest of the world, we won’t be able to maintain our position of military strength if we don’t fix (read reform or close) the schools!” And all the time, despite bumps and dips, our economy and our military remained the strongest in the world. Hmmmm…it seems to me, if schools were as bad as we were told they were, we should be living in a third-world country by now.

But, no doubt, the achievement gap was troubling. It became the focus of numerous academic studies and think tanks. What could be done to close it, many worried. Most of those studies pointed clearly and unmistakably to a correlation between the achievement gap and poverty. While no one said that poverty prevented all students who were living in poverty from being successful in school, they were observing that a large majority of those students were unsuccessful, whereas students in affluent schools tended to be successful. Some even asserted that reducing poverty in America would have a positive impact on the achievement gap.

However, another group of influential people thought differently about the achievement gap. They decided that the problem lay with the students, who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t apply themselves. We simply didn’t expect enough of them. Or perhaps it was the teachers who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t know how to teach or care enough to learn. The solution to everything, they determined, was to provide both incentives and punishments and demand more of teachers and students and schools. And so, Congress passed NCLB, the first untested and unproven nationwide education experiment. It was a total failure, as we all know, because its demands were unreasonable and its methods draconian. Fast forward thirteen years to the Common Core Initiative, otherwise known as NCLB on steroids. The same groups of people continue to make the same claims with the same, ratcheted-up, unworkable, inappropriate solutions.

Unfortunately the achievement gap term has played into the hands of these reformers. If it’s simply a matter of “achieving,” they conclude students can be bribed or punished to “achieve.” Thus the use of the term achievement gap seems to lend credence to the rationale of the “reformers.” Of course, this flies in the face of decades of psychological and educational research.

Recently amid much controversy, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released the 2013 school and district report cards a few days ago. One blogger took the time to plot the correspondences between schools that got Fs and schools that are located in areas of poverty. See it here. To nobody’s surprise, the correlation was high. Yet, those in the reform camp still want to claim that schools that are making As and Bs are simply doing a better job of teaching to the rigorous standards than those who got Fs. They refuse to accept that affluence may really be the determinate of educational success.

Some have suggested the use of a different term to describe this persistent difference between affluent and non-affluent students’ performance. They propose an “opportunity gap” and this makes sense to me. I believe as long as we focus on achievement in the gap, it is too easy to blame the students, as well as schools and teachers, which is a much too simplistic solution. If instead, we use the term opportunity to describe the gap, we tend to focus on other factors which are extremely powerful but over which the student has little control. It’s a real game changer.

And so we come back to names and labels. What you call it makes a big difference in how you think about it. Looks like Juliet is wrong again.

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One thought on “More thoughts about roses and names

  1. One explanation of the difference in achievement between 2 people of similar IQ is the differences in experiences. Wealthier families bless their kids with many experiences- camp, museum, vacation, dance, sports, music, acting, books. Poor families usually don’t.

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