Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Making stuff up" about the achievement gap.....

The achievement gap has become a recurrent justification -- or should I say rationalization -- for radical alteration in public school funding. Several legislative leaders with responsibility for school funding at the legislature have repeatedly contended that public education in general has failed, and they have contended that this failure is proven by the persistence of the achievement gap. Indeed, several have suggested that we could attack the achievement gap more effectively, if only we would pull funding away from public schools and transfer that money to a voucher program. Throughout these discussions at the legislature, the claim that the public education system is causing the achievement gap runs largely accepted and unchallenged. Hand wringing editorials; documentaries; speeches from the Secretary of Education (who ought to know better), all accept this claim uncritically.

What really is the achievement gap, what causes it, and who has the solutions? Unless we understand the meaning of the achievement gap, it is impossible to craft sound policy:

We say that there is an achievement gap, because average white reading and math proficiency scores and non-white reading and math proficiency scores both have risen substantially, but that the gap between these scores remains.
Let me say this a different way. The achievement gap is not a measure of whether American students are doing better than they did a generation ago. Actually, the achievement gap is a manifestation of the fact that all students are doing better on the average, and that non-white students (on the average) are not gaining enough ground to close the gap. Highly respected education policy researcher Richard Rothstein provides persuasive statistics to support this important point in a recent article in the Washington Post, "How Bill Gates Misinterprets Education Facts." In his article, Rothstein points out that the most reliable longitudinal measure of student achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP provides trends for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and poverty, since about 1980 in basic skills in math and reading (called the “Long Term Trend NAEP”) and since about 1990 for 4th and 8th graders in slightly more sophisticated math and reading skills (called the “Main NAEP”).

He continues:
On these exams, American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading. Improvements have been modest for whites in 12th grade math and at all three grade levels in reading.

Here are two charts he offers to prove his point. Take some time. Read them carefully, because they are probably the most important statistics in education as it pertains to the achievement gap. The challenge the repeated claim that minorities (on the average) are failing to make educational progress.

In the last four decades, Rothstein continues the percentage of colleges graduates in the United States has nearly doubled. In 1970, 16% of young adults (ages 25 to 29) were college graduates. Today, it is 31%. The improvement has been across the board: the share of African-American young adults who are college graduates has gone from 10% to 19%; for whites it has gone from 17% to 37%.

We face a great education challenge in America. We need more children to read proficiently. We need more students to read and write beyond proficiency standards. We need more students to master math and science. There are schools, and in some case entire school systems that can be rated as abject failures by any standard. We need to fix those schools and those school systems. But the people who claim that the story of American public education is one of abject failure, are "making stuff up." Some of them are making stuff up because they want to make things better, and by making things look uniformly bad, they think they will spur us to change. Some of them are making stuff up because they want to dismantle what they call "government schools," and shift money to privates. Some of them are making stuff up because, well everyone else is making stuff up too.

We have a crisis in American education. There are too many young people who are not realizing their potential. Too many of them are poor, are minorities, are first generation families, or are immigrants from third world countries. All of this requires fundamental change in American Education. But let us not develop those changes on bogus information.

Because folks at the legislature are using the achievement gap as an excuse for their favorite solutions, I'm going to spend the next few posts taking a look at the causes of the achievement gap and potential solutions. There are some very promising reforms underway across the country. Some of them require major fundamental change in how we deliver instruction, how we use the labor force, and how we train teachers and administrators. None of those solutions involve pulling funds out of K-12 education, or dismantling our system of public education.

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