Why Achievement Gap Mania Isn’t Cost-Free

By 09/28/2011

2 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

As I noted earlier, my National Affairs essay “Our Achievement Gap Mania” has stirred some conversation. Let’s take a moment to address those who’ve asked, “Rick, why are you trying to stir up trouble? There are no losers here!”

Proponents of the gap-closing gospel cheerfully assure us that everybody wins. Education Trust vice president Amy Wilkins has rejected as a “false choice” the notion “that we have to make a choice as a country between equity and excellence. Our policies need to marry both.” That’s a swell aspiration. Unfortunately, I think the evidence suggests that focusing our attention and finite resources on some children will frequently come at the expense of others. Now, it may very well be that we should choose to focus them on gap-closing. At the least, though, we owe it to our children and ourselves to be more forthright and more conflicted by the fact that we’re privileging the needs of some children over those of others.

And this matters, a lot. For instance, it’s hardly the case that the U.S. can afford to be cavalier about the performance of our more advanced students. Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek, Harvard University’s Paul Peterson, and the University of Munich’s Ludger Woessmann reported earlier this year that the share of U.S. students accomplished in math trails those of most other industrialized nations. Thirty of the 56 nations participating in the Program for International Student Assessment math test had a larger percentage of students scoring at the international equivalent of the advanced level on NAEP than we did. Indeed, just 6 percent of American eighth graders scored “advanced” on the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Finland, the proportion of students achieving at the same level was at least three times as large.

A universal and exclusive focus on low-achieving kids ignores the fact that different education strategies work best for different kinds of students. Before they ever enter the classroom, many children from low-income and minority households are at a distinct educational disadvantage. Research demonstrates that children from more educated families tend to start school with much larger vocabularies, more exposure to the written word, more time having been read to, and more of the habits that make for a responsible, successful student.

Kindergarteners from low-income households typically have a vocabulary of about 5,000 words, compared to the typical 20,000-word vocabulary of their more advantaged peers. The disparity results, in part, from the fact that many low-income children don’t attend pre-school; low-income parents speak to their children about one-third as much as parents who are professionals; low-income parents read to their children much less than other parents; and low-income children watch much more television than do their peers.

Let’s take individual needs and differentiated instruction seriously. Some important differences likely overlay the “achievement gap” divides. From the very beginning, for instance, disadvantaged and advantaged children may have different educational needs and stand to benefit from different kinds of instruction. The kinds of teaching and support that can help disadvantaged students acquire the skills and knowledge that they did not receive at home are often superfluous or inappropriate for children who are ready to move on. In this way, gap-closing can shift from a strategy that lifts up the least proficient students into one that slows up the most proficient.

And children who are ready for new intellectual challenges may pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth grade reading and math scores and eighth grade math from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. He concluded, “It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students.”

Loveless’s findings echo a massive 1996 RAND Corporation meta-analysis. RAND researchers have previously reported that when low-achieving students were placed in mixed ability classrooms, they did about five percentage points better. High-achieving students, however, fared six percentage points worse in such classes–and middle-achieving students fared two percentage points worse than they did when placed in “tracked” classes. Weighing these effects out, the authors concluded that switching to mixed-ability classes in math would reduce aggregate achievement by 2 percent. That may suggest that promoting mixed-ability classes is a sensible and just course of action, but it’s not cost-free.

There is, of course, the occasional extraordinary teacher who can make heterogeneous classes work for all students. But such teachers are the exception, not the rule. Value-added testing guru Bill Sanders has reported, based on Tennessee achievement data, that high-scoring students made adequate gains only with the top 20 percent of teachers. Students at lower achievement levels, however, made progress with all but the least effective teachers. In other words, Sanders’s research suggests that teacher quality may matter more for high-performing students than for their peers.

As with so much of the “achievement gap” agenda, mixed-ability instruction is not a bad idea per se. But it does impose costs. The gap-closing gospel holds that it is improper or out-of-bounds to discuss such things. That’s bad for kids, bad for school improvement efforts and, as I’ll talk about next week, likely to undermine the kind of middle-class and suburban parental and political support needed to sustain improvement efforts.

-Frederick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Comment on this article
  • Larry Gross says:

    the problem is that we are spending tax dollars on non-academic.. “enriching” courses that should be paid for by parents – and we are diverting that money from where it should be spent which is on K-6 basic reading, writing and math – for kids without built-in parental support.

    in other words we are prioritizing funding for the “extras” while complaining that we don’t have enough money for the basics ….

    we hear this all the time about class sizes but class sizes in elementary school are far, far more important than..say.. class sizes for photo journalism or Latin IV.

  • Parry says:

    “Excellence for all” is easy to say, but let’s be honest: schools have finite time, energy, and resources. Lowering class or group size for one group of kids necessarily means raising it for another group of kids; spending more time on meeting the needs of one group of kids necessarily means spending less time on meeting the needs of another group of kids.

    As a principal of a public middle school, I liken it to walking into a Carrabbas—a nice, semi-upscale Italian restaurant chain—and asking the manager to add a Chinese buffet, fast-food burgers for take-out, a full complement of vegan options, a seafood rawbar, and a full menu of sophisticated French pastries. Outside of public education, we don’t expect any one organization to try to be everything to all people, because we know intuitively that it is just not possible. But an individual school is expected to challenge the students working way above grade level, while also closing gaps for students who struggle from day one. The range of experiences, abilities, interests, achievement levels, and home environments for the students in any given school can be immense, and marrying “equity and excellence” sounds nice in theory, but is complex to the point of absurdity when played out in a real-life school with real-life students, teachers, administrators, and budgets.


  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform