Education Opinion

Eliminating the Achievement Gap Is Educational Alchemy

By Walt Gardner — May 21, 2010 3 min read
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If there’s one issue that has continued to frustrate educational reformers beyond all others over the decades, it’s the existence of the academic achievement gap. More precisely, it’s the difference in average performance between various social classes. Despite proclamations at the highest levels to eliminate the gap, the best that can be done is to narrow it.

It’s not that some students from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t match the performance of their advantaged counterparts by hard work, parental support and stellar instruction. But high-blown rhetoric serves only to create unrealistic expectations for the overwhelming majority of public schools.

The latest example can be found in Boston, where a first-time partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and local school districts is trying to recruit hundreds of successful teachers to turn around 35 underperforming schools (“Mass. hunting for star teachers,” May 10). It’s doubtful these master teachers will be able to transfer the outcomes they posted elsewhere to schools where one in four students are still learning to speak English.

Critics will maintain that this skepticism is unwarranted. They’ll be quick to point to high-flying schools that have overcome the odds. If they can do it, then why can’t all schools staffed by talented teachers do the same? The answer is that there are some 50 million students who are taught by 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools in the U.S. What is the probability that enough schools can achieve at a level to eliminate - not merely narrow - the gaps between the socioeconomic groups they serve?

Nothing above means that schools don’t matter. Of course they do. But their quality has little effect on the difference (there’s that crucial word again) in average achievement between students from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Here’s why. Education Department data show that disadvantaged children enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and math skills, and never catch up. That’s because their advantaged contemporaries are not standing still. They continue to benefit from travel, summer camp and other enriching experiences. Even the best schools have no control over these factors. It’s little wonder then that there will always be a gap in academic achievement.

California is a reminder of why it’s so important not to draw conclusions based on incomplete information. Its public schools were once the envy of the nation. But since the 1960s, their performance has declined dramatically. Is this the result of a new generation of ineffective teachers in the classrooms, or the growth of teachers unions that protect them?

Some say yes. But there’s another more likely explanation. During the period in question, California’s immigrant population soared because of the 1965 federal legislation that opened the gates to citizenship. (This does not begin to take into consideration the countless number of the undocumented.) One in four students in California is an English language learner, compared with fewer than one in ten on average in other states.

Almost 60 percent of the state’s total public school population consists of Hispanics, many of them low-income. This demographic is reflected in the fact that half of California’s students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

Why are these numbers relevant to the achievement gap? The Public Policy Institute of California reported that only 50 percent of elementary schools with the highest share of poor students made adequate yearly progress in 2007, while 98 percent of elementary schools with the lowest share of poor students did so.

If any doubt remains, California released its Academic Performance Index rankings on May 13, showing continued vast disparities in achievement between schools serving poor Hispanic and African-American students and schools serving middle-class white students.

Let’s not give up on trying to change this discouraging picture, but at the same time let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that schools alone are the answer, whether in California or in any state. Extraordinary teachers can be powerful agents in helping students make progress in learning, but they are not miracle workers who can make the achievement gap disappear.

Believing otherwise creates anger in taxpayers who have been led to believe that if only schools were like they used to be in the past there would be no gaps. It’s a myth.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.