Education Opinion

Can Better Teachers Close the Achievement Gap?

By Diane Ravitch — April 28, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Deb,

A new report by McKinsey & Co., the management consultants, came out last week, and it is worthy of our attention.

The report was released at a press conference in Washington, D.C., by NYC Chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The McKinsey report acknowledges their “significant input,” along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and others.

At the press conference, according to the story in The New York Times, Chancellor Klein “said the study vindicated the idea that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but subpar teachers and principals.” This study offered Chancellor Klein the opportunity to argue yet again, as the Education Equality Project does, that schools alone can close the achievement gap, and that such things as poverty and social disadvantage are merely excuses for those unwilling to accept the challenge.

Actually, the report doesn’t say this. McKinsey’s analysts describe the economic cost of the racial and economic disparities in American education. They calculate how many billions and trillions richer our nation would be had we closed the achievement gap a decade ago. The document says little about causes and cures, just lays out what it costs our society to have so many people who are poorly educated. It does say that low-income students are likely to get less experienced, less qualified teachers, and that schools in poor neighborhoods have less money for education than those in affluent districts. Anyone of any ideology or political persuasion should be unsettled by the wide disparities between students from different economic backgrounds.

Of course, none of this is new. Academics and educators have been concerned about the achievement gap for many years. Since SAT scores and NAEP scores were disaggregated by race and income, the dimensions of the gap have been clear, and many scholars, school districts, universities, and agencies have sought to find solutions to it.

My hunch is that an editorial writer could read the McKinsey report and use it to argue for eradicating poverty, which is highly correlated with low educational performance.

But Klein and Sharpton use it to say something that the report itself does not say, which is that the only reason that the gap exists is because of subpar teachers and principals. Thus, if a school system can change its teachers and principals, the gaps should close. Klein has been in charge of the New York City public school system for the past seven years. He has replaced 80 percent of its principals during this time; the number of teachers he has replaced has not been reported. Yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there has been no decline in the achievement gap among racial and ethnic groups in New York City since Klein took charge.

Next comes The New York Times’ best-selling author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who wrote about the McKinsey study last week. Friedman draws a direct linkage between the decline of our education system and the decline of our economy. His column ends with a plug for Teach for America, which he apparently sees as one important answer to the problem. He writes about the huge surge in applications to join TFA, with the total number up by 40 percent, including 11 percent of all Ivy League seniors. Maybe I am missing something. Teach for America has, according to its Web site, “more than 14,000 alumni” and “more than 6,000” current TFA teachers. Even if it recruits and fields 10,000 young people next year, how are these small numbers of teachers—most of whom will leave after two or three years—going to transform the teaching profession, in which there are more than three million teachers?

I don’t know of any social scientist who believes that poverty has no bearing on academic achievement, on children’s health, on their sense of efficacy, on their family stability, or on a host of other social factors that influence academic achievement. I think we will have to see an entire urban district where KIPP and TFA have taken over and closed the achievement gap before we can conclude that poverty and family circumstances don’t matter.

Until then, the political use of the McKinsey study just serves to divert attention from the need to improve the lives of poor children and their families.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.