Opinion
Student Achievement Commentary

What’s the Real Route to Closing Achievement Gaps?

By Anthony T. Palumbo & Louisa Kramer-Vida — June 24, 2010 6 min read

Two recent essays in Education Week highlighted different views of American education. One was about the legacy of Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante; the other was about finding a student’s “price point,” the optimal condition at which learning would take place. These juxtaposed perspectives left us with two contradictory thoughts: (1) that we know how to solve the problem of achievement gaps, and (2) that if the solution does not fit our ideology, the answer must be wrong.

In “Finding the Student’s ‘Price Point,’ ” Harvard University’s Paul E. Peterson writes that “the dream of progressive educators since John Dewey” is about to be realized. Technology allows us to provide an education customized by “price points,” he says, to fit the needs and circumstances of students, the same way that designers and customers select “kitchen cabinets, faucets, sinks, and bathroom tile.” Since each student learns differently, computers can design individual programs tailored for every need. Peterson notes, for example, that New York City’s “School of One,” which does just that, was named one of Time magazine’s “top 50 inventions of the year” in 2009.

Perhaps Time is correct, and this kind of teaching is the future: each student sitting in front of a terminal, plugging in answers as the hard drive whirs, tests, evaluates, and programs. But the idea that progressive education, designed in part for children to participate in a democratic society, would find its culmination in teaching methods so idiosyncratic that two students could not take a class together seems bizarre. Besides, the solutions offered here sound more like the technological fix suggested by Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, back in 1971. Recycling failed theory under different nomenclature seems close to Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The Progressive Education Association began in 1919 with a goal of “reforming the entire school system of America.” But it disbanded in 1955, the same year Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read became a national bestseller. Whether this timing represents correlation or coincidence can be left to quantitative researchers to decide, but someone is bound to make the argument that the progressives had less to do with basic education or rigorous academics than with change.

Much of that change remains with us. Although the progressives de-emphasized the three R’s, they enriched the curriculum by adding subjects like chemistry, drawing, cooking, physics, art, music, and manual training, and they made classrooms safer and more pleasant places for children. But enlarging the curriculum was one thing; de-emphasizing basic academics was something else, and parents, especially immigrant parents, complained about the schools’ lack of intellectual rigor. They wanted their children educated. These complaints alarmed John Dewey, who was already concerned about some of the excesses practiced in his name. He noted, “It is not meant, as has been sometimes jocosely stated, that the child learn to bake and sew at school, and to read, write, and figure at home.”

Perhaps not meant, but the child-centered and social-engineering aspects of progressive education were a two-edged sword. One side enlarged the educational horizon; the other lost its way, forgetting in the early light of a new day that the primary purpose of sending children to school is for them to learn. Sentimental books with titles like I Learn From My Students offer nice, heartwarming tales, but how much math did Jaime Escalante learn from his troubled student Angel?

The country might have been better off if it had listened to W.E.B. Du Bois, who knew something about disadvantaged children. Du Bois said that “the school has but one way to cure the ills of society,” which is “to teach [people] to read, write, and count.” “And if the school fails to do that,” he continued, “and tries beyond that to do something for which a school is not adapted, it not only fails in its own function, but it fails in all other attempted functions.” Many decades later, the sociologist James S. Coleman agreed with Du Bois. He thought the road to social egalitarianism went through an academic curriculum.

The basic problem with American education for a hundred years is not that it wandered down the wrong path, but that in too many instances it did not go down the right path. Schools are academic institutions. To the extent they succeed in that, they succeed in all. If they fail their primary purpose, they fail all.

Escalante understood a school’s purpose. And his disadvantaged students, given the companionship of a great teacher, understood it, too. But, as the essay by Heather Kirn Lanier makes clear, Hollywood writers know that facts shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of storytelling. The success of Escalante’s students was the climax to a great story, but the rising action was slow and laborious, lacking the dramatic suddenness of a happy ending. So change the ending and confuse the facts, as filmmakers did in “Stand and Deliver,” the 1988 movie based on Escalante’s life.

How do we bridge achievement gaps? Learn from Escalante: Plan for it, put an academic curriculum in place, demand that kids learn, and make the system work, kindergarten through grade 12. Great teachers help, and children are privileged and fortunate to meet them, but even great teachers cannot make systemic change without systemic help. On the other hand, good teachers, planning and working together, can change the system, and there are more good teachers than school critics realize.

Hollywood left out the hard-work part of the Escalante story. The movie shows a class of disadvantaged students, mostly Hispanic, who aced the Advanced Placement calculus test, and it implies their later success in college. The storyline omits the part about the years of planning, the cooperation of the high school’s principal, Henry Gradillas, the math department’s gradual increase in requirements, the feeder courses taken and passed before students enrolled in the AP course, and the handpicked math teachers who taught the courses. These are not dramatic episodes, and the movie’s writers felt free to exclude them. Yet these episodes are necessary additions to our programs if schools are to change the course of students’ lives.

The solution to the student-achievement problem is simple: hard work, a rigorous academic curriculum, good teachers, accountability on both sides of the desk, and support services. It worked for Jaime Escalante, and it has worked for many others. But this solution runs hard against the mythology of the last hundred years. The belief that schools can be changed for the better by a cadre of young teachers, or by administrators who have spent little time in classrooms, or by successful business people casting their intellectual and fiscal largess on schools in a noblesse oblige moment perpetuates the romantic side of the progressive myth.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that solutions emanating from this romantic perspective probably won’t work. Some charter schools will succeed, and some will fail, as will some public schools. But systemic education reform will continue to elude us. By now, large foundations have learned that there is no dearth of people who will spend their money. Before they write more checks, they should study the history of other foundations that turned to education before them. Some of their investments worked, some did not.

The problem we face is not repeating history because we don’t know it. The problem is repeating history because we don’t like the lessons it teaches.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week as What’s the Real Route to Closing Achievement Gaps?

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