Mind the Gap: The Separation
Last week, I wrote about Rick Hess’s article in the current issue of National Affairs, where he unbundles what he calls our “Achievement Gap Mania.” Hess explores the unintended consequences of our approaches to closing the achievement gap.
I was fundamentally moved by the piece and wrote about one of its themes in a post entitled Mind the Gap: The Narrowing. Today, I’d like to focus on a second highlight/theme of the article.
Highlight #2: Guided by altruism and social justice, our achievement gap mania has focused exclusively on educating students of color living in poverty. This has alienated middle class families and reinforced segregated schooling.
Hess lays it out bluntly:
Today, school reformers, state and local education officials, exemplary charter-school operators, and managers of philanthropic foundations make it very clear that they are primarily in the business of educating poor black and Hispanic children.
That is a noble pursuit, to be sure. For far too long public education efforts passively neglected, or actively excluded, poor kids and students of color for a variety of reasons – many morally and ethically abhorrent. It is perfectly logical that those of us in ‘the movement’ (TFA, KIPP and its derivatives) would focus our attention to the kids who need it most and who have been denied access to the most basic promises of opportunity that should be afforded to them in a free, developed society that also happens to be the wealthiest country on the planet.
However, it has some unintended consequences, which Hess points out:
Achievement-gap mania has signaled to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about their kids. They are now expected to support efforts to close the achievement gap simply because it’s “the right thing to do,” regardless of the implications for their own children’s education.
I think this is a real problem. It significantly limits the scope of the potential improvements to public education. So many of us have framed the problem as ‘poor kids have gotten a raw deal, for too long and we need to make it right.’ While that statement isn’t false, it significantly underestimates the enormity of the challenge before all of us in education. Poor students have been underserved for far too long, and one wonders if their academic needs were ever met. However, right now the middle class and affluent students are not faring so well either when compared with other students around the globe. Check out Jay Greene’s Global Report Card and his chilling article in Education Next entitled “When the Best is Mediocre” (more on both of those in future posts, I’m sure).
Now, when people think about education ‘reform’ or improvements, generally the kids in need are kids living in urban or rural areas that have been traditionally performing well below their more affluent peers. Parents of the middle class or affluent think their children are in good shape, and if they support education improvements or innovations, they only support it for other people’s kids. Or, as Hess says,
Because middle-class parents and suburbanites have no personal stake in the gap-closing enterprise, reforms are tolerated rather than embraced.
Meanwhile, due to a variety of factors, what’s left of the middle class is fleeing the suburbs and headed back to the cities. If they have the optimism to enroll their children public schools, urban education reform may affect their kids for the first time. The problem is, even effective schools born in the ‘achievement gap mania’ era are designed for one purpose: to meet the needs of kids who are traditionally left behind academically. The urban middle class’s tolerance of education reform for other people’s kids hits home when they realize there aren’t enough public schools that can meet the needs of their students.
My response to this dilemma is to create a school which from the start will be designed to meet the needs of a diverse population: students from all income levels: poverty, middle class and affluence. This will be an incredibly heavy lift, given the stark differences in preparedness among kids from different family situations, which Hess explains:
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 do other parents; and low-income children watch much more television than do their peers.
As any TFA corps member teaching early elementary will tell you, the achievement gap exists before kids start school. My wife, Erin (also a TFA alum), and I have noticed this first hand with our own daughter. She started Kindergarten this year at a much higher academic level than the first graders Erin taught in the South Bronx in 2003. That’s a gap that only grows wider over time.
An intended outcome of my future school will be that in a diverse environment, the educational experience for all children will be better than in a homogenous one. Unfortunately, as Hess points out, it’s not as easy as just sitting traditionally low achieving students next to traditionally high achieving ones:
A 1996 RAND Corporation study found 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
For someone who wants to open a school with a diverse student body, those are some sobering statistics. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. Hess cites one clear way it can be accomplished – amazing teachers:
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.
Agreed. These teachers are usually the exception. What if there was a school full of exceptional teachers? I think it’s possible, but it will be challenging and I will need your help.
We will need exceptional teachers in every classroom, enthusiastic parents from across the city, and we will need a sense of possibility from the New Orleans community and the national education movement.
If you are reading this, you’re a part of this story. Please contribute to the discussion in the comments, share this blog with others, and tell your friends about this effort.