Monday, June 11, 2012

Achievement Gap Bait and Switch

Periodically, my fellow reform-minded education colleagues tout the amazing accomplishments of a particular charter or a  particular traditional public school that, they proudly announce, has "succeeded in closing the achievement gap."   If its a charter school, often that success is paired with the implication that charters represent the answer to closing the gap.   If its a traditional public school, often the implication is that, well, here is an exceptional public school that's doing great work "closing the achievement gap."    Before I get to my diatribe against bait and switch, let me begin by affirming that I always favor celebrating a successful school.   If a school is graduating lots of student to excellence, it deserves our approbation.     But I maintain that a single school cannot close the achievement gap, and claiming that it has, is a gross misunderstanding of what the achievement gap is.

Education Week says that:

The “achievement gap” in education refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates, among other success measures. It is most often used to describe the troubling performance gaps between African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their non-Hispanic white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income families and those who are better off. In the past decade, though, scholars and policymakers have begun to focus increasing attention on other achievement gaps, such as those based on sex, English-language proficiency and learning disabilities.
The achievement gap exists across groups nationally, and in Minnesota on a statewide basis.  We can't close the achievement gap by finding a group of a couple hundred children from a particular particular group and doing a really good job with their education.  However laudable that achievement may be, its not making a dent in the achievement gap.  There are approximately 200,000 Students of Color and American Indian Students in Minnesota’s public schools.  Harvest Preparatory, a K-6 school that justly receives praise for its accomplishments enrolls about 325 students at any one time. It would take 625 Harvest Preps and another 625 comparable high schools to close the achievement gap.  

If a couple hundred students out of 200,000,  raise their performance to the very tip top of the scale, the average performance of the entire 200,000 will remain virtually the same.  

You might complain that I am being picky, and failing to give credit where credit is due.  On the contrary, my concern is that too often policy pundits and legislators confuse a single success in a single school with a quite different goal:  delivering an excellent education to all children.   The title of this post calls this practice, of singling out a couple of successful schools and conflating that success with closing the gap, "achievement gap bait and switch."  

Listen.   Implementing a successful reform to transform 300 students is quite an accomplishment.  But implementing that reform so that it benefits 200,000 students is several orders of magnitude more difficult and more complex.   When a charter school advocate points to a successful charter school and implies that propagating more charter schools is the key to closing the achievement gap, that's a form of bait and switch.  The Minnesota Office of Legislative Auditor's report on charter schools tells us that public schools are no more successful in gap closing than traditional publics, and perhaps less so.   How does it close the achievement gap to replace traditional publics with charters, if the net result is to leave us with the same mix of successful and unsuccessful students as we had before?  

The advocates for those special schools, here a KIPP academy, there a Harvest-Seed, and here and there a public school with extraordinary results, are quick to point out that the students in these schools are demographically the same as the competition, allegedly.   But one always wonders.   Piano teachers with successful students somehow seem to attract more musically talented students.   Motivated parents and motivated students gravitate to the teachers who are, by reputation, successful.   Hockey stars somehow seem to gravitate as well to the great hockey powers, by hook or by crook.  Motivated parents will make just about any sacrifice to make sure that their motivated children get enrolled in a successful school, and good for them.   We don't know for sure, whether there is a natural selection process that  causes those special students  from very special families to filter their way into these special schools.   We don't know for sure, either, whether a few schools are able to capture the imagination of a special group of gifted teachers, who themselves gravitate to the few schools who have found that special combination that leads to success.

The concern is that legislators are using the success of a few fortunate schools to alibi away the cost and reforms necessary to scale up an entire public school system statewide.    A number of political leaders are gifted at this form of bait and switch.   Take 90 million dollars and grant it out to a tiny select group of public school districts as special reform grants, and pretend that we're reforming public education, when really, we are avoiding the true cost of  creating that reform for all students.   Pick ten states and give them a bit of money and pretend that we are solving the nation's education problems, while the other 40 get nothing.  Celebrate the exceptional charter schools that have stellar records in hopes that we use the charter movement to do education on the cheap.  

Economics tells us that it is always harder--and significantly more expensive--to produce the highest quality goods or services for hundreds of thousands of people than a few hundred.  If you try to find 4 outstanding  and superbly qualified principals who can  transform 4 schools, and staff those 4 schools with uniquely qualified and dedicated teachers, the market will produce those teachers and principals at a relatively modest price and with relative ease. But if you try to find 600 such principals and 18,000 such teachers, the price will rise markedly, through the laws of supply and demand, and will soon exhaust the labor market for people with those special qualifications.   If you wanted to find a single pediatrician to staff a medical clinic in a low income section of a major city, maybe you may succeed after a while.  But trying to find 100 such pediatricians is entirely another matter.   Scaling up a good idea from 1 to 1000 is not as simple as taking something that works at the level of one and multiplying everything by 1000.  

Listen again.   We can, and we must, close the achievement gap.  But we're not going to accomplish that objective by finding one or two very successful schools and waving a magic wand 1000 times as if those schools can be cloned 1000 times overnight.   Its going to take more money than most pundits would like to admit; its going to take more reform than most of us care to admit as well.  In the meantime, if you want to celebrate the success of a few heroic schools, I'll celebrate along with you.  But please, don't call that success "closing the achievement gap," because that's just bait and switch.