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Student Achievement Opinion

Where Achievement Gap Mania Came From

By Rick Hess — September 29, 2011 5 min read
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Last week’s National Affairs essay “Our Achievement Gap Mania” has raised a little ire. One thing that might be useful is to situate the debate a bit, both in terms of how we got here and why I have the temerity to suggest that the moral philosophy behind gap-closing is less compelling than proponents seem to imagine.

In the 1960s, in the famed Coleman Report, sociologist James Coleman examined the first large-scale collection of data on school characteristics and student achievement to conclude that schooling had little effect on students’ life outcomes and that parents’ involvement in their children’s lives affected achievement and eventual success much more powerfully than did schooling. An extensive reanalysis by sociologist Christopher Jencks and a team at Harvard similarly concluded that the outcomes of schooling depended almost entirely on “the characteristics of the entering children. Everything else--the school budget, its policies, the characteristics of the teachers--is either secondary or completely irrelevant.”

These discouraging conclusions set the stage for decades of lethargic schooling, in which educators excused disappointing results by blaming circumstances beyond their control. The result, in the1980s and then increasingly in the 1990s, was frustration among policymakers and would-be reformers insisting that educators do better. Doubtless, a child’s physical, family, and community circumstances had an impact on their readiness for school and the likelihood that they’d succeed, but reformers on the right and left recoiled at the casual acceptance in education circles that zip code was destiny.

Reformers demanded that schools seek to do better by those hard-to-serve students who were too often passed over or ignored. So far, so good. But, as with so much else in schooling, a sensible and healthy impulse was stretched into caricature.

In some form or other, the No Child Left Behind Act was probably inevitable. For too long, inadequate instruction in essential skills and abysmal performance by poor, black, and Latino children have been tacitly accepted as the status quo. NCLB was largely the product of bipartisan frustration among Washington policymakers tired of educators seemingly refusing to accept responsibility for mediocre results. With that support, NCLB passed the U.S. House on a 381-41 vote and the U.S. Senate, 87-10. Achievement gap mania, as a bipartisan project, can be fairly traced to the passage of NCLB. It was NCLB, after all, whose very title formally proclaimed “An Act to close the achievement gap.”

The U.S. got the particular NCLB that it did because George W. Bush ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative.” Eager to showcase his compassion, he drew upon his record as an education reform in Texas to make the case for educational accountability. However, testing, standards, and accountability alone could too easily seem soulless for a Republican trying to reassure moderates. Thus, Bush spoke not merely of accountability but pledged to “leave no child behind.” Bush strategist Karl Rove explained, in Courage and Consequence, that, “When Bush said...that the absence of an accountability system in our schools meant black, brown, poor, and rural children were getting left behind, it...deepened the impression that he was a different kind of Republican whom suburban voters could be proud to support.”

That pledge provided much common ground between Bush and congressional Democratic warhorses Senator Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, as well as the influential and left-leaning Education Trust. Was there merit in this collaboration? Of course. Even highly-regarded schools and districts had often found it convenient to turn a blind eye towards the needs of their poor and minority students.

Under NCLB, “conservative” nostrums of accountability were linked to Great Society notions of “social justice” in a noble exercise hailed for its compassion. The critiques of the overreaching machinery resulted are well-known to RHSU readers, and I won’t bother rehashing them here.

What is worth noting, though, is that, even on its own terms, it’s not clear that the gap-closing mantra at the heart of NCLB is especially compelling as moral philosophy--even setting aside practical considerations.

After all, if there’s anyone who might be regarded as the patron saint of gap-closing mania, it is twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls. Rawls authored A Theory of Justice, the influential treatise which argued that a just society should ensure, according to the “difference principle,” that any social and economic inequalities must be arranged for the benefit of society’s least advantaged group. That would seem to be a slam-dunk case for guiltlessly slighting other students in order to focus on those students at the bottom, no?

And yet even Rawls’ take was far more nuanced than that of today’s gap-closers. Indeed, Rawls cautioned, “Now the difference principle...does not require society to try to even out handicaps as if all were expected to compete on a fair basis in the same race. But the difference principle would allocate resources in education, say, so as to improve the long-term expectation of the least favored. If this end is attained by giving more attention to the better endowed, it is permissible; otherwise not.” In other words, if cannibalizing advanced science instruction or diluting Advanced Placement curricula will result in a society with fewer jobs or less wealth, then Rawls might well counsel caution. Yet, gap-closers dismiss such niceties with moral fervor or assertions that their preferred reforms entail no trade-offs.

It would be comforting if gap-closers even occasionally took seriously Rawls’ caution that, “It is not in general to the advantage of the less fortunate to propose policies which reduce the talents of others. Instead, by accepting the difference principle, they view the greater abilities as a social asset to be used for the common advantage.” I’ve been in lots of public forums and private conversations with funders, policymakers, and would-be reformers, and I’ve found such perspective has been in vanishingly short supply during the past decade.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.