To the Editor:
A major point missing from your May 3, 2006, In Perspective on Ruby K. Payne, “Payne’s Pursuit,” is also missing from national reform proposals and policies directed toward closing the achievement gap, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The education community has failed to make a clear distinction between what is required to improve achievement, such as strategies, materials, and programs, and what is required to close achievement gaps—systems change, supported by an integrated knowledge base defining learning in varied contexts. Without a major shift in their understanding of the nature of the achievement gaps that exist among socioeconomic, racial, and cultural groups, educators will continue to seek and be satisfied with isolated strategies and entertaining speakers.
Though Ms. Payne’s theory of “hidden rules” of economic class does offer some valid strategies supported by evidence from anthropology, as well as an understanding of the impact of cultural environments on learning, she doesn’t distinguish between poverty factors and cultural factors. Current federal policy does not address these issues and only narrowly defines scientific evidence as “statistical significance.”
The question then is not whether what Ms. Payne offers, or even the No Child Left Behind law itself, is right or wrong. It is whether either one includes all that is required even to have an adequate impact on achievement gaps. Taking aspirin, drinking lots of fluids, and getting rest is right for treating the symptoms of a cold, but if you have pneumonia, it isn’t right enough.
Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania
A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as Achievement-Gaps Goal: Improving or Closing?