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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Student Achievement Opinion

Why Achievement Gap Mania Undermines Reform

By Rick Hess — September 30, 2011 4 min read
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All right, enough of this already. This is the last day on “Our Achievement Gap Mania” (at least for now); I promise. But some folks have wondered how I can be goofy enough to argue that such a popular rhetorical strategy is bad for sustaining reform. My default answer is to encourage folks to read the whole piece. But since many of you are busy, let’s highlight a few key points here.

The champions of the gap-closing gospel tend to regard themselves as tactical geniuses, and to think of the achievement gap mantra as a brilliant political strategy. The irony is that, if you stop to think about it, this would seem to be at odds with their persistent frustration that they don’t get more support from suburbanites and the middle class--and their search for clever new stratagems with which to broaden their base of support. I’d suggest that the problem is actually less their tactics than the inherently self-limiting appeal of the gap-closing agenda.

Achievement gap mania has signaled to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about their kids--that they’re supposed to support “reform” because it’s the right thing to do, even when it will cost their child. Actually, given that only about one household in five even contains school-age children, 80 percent of households have been asked to back an agenda that focuses on urban centers where they don’t live or on serving children who likely live in other neighborhoods. If we consider that two-thirds of families with children don’t stand to benefit from the gap-closing agenda, the result is a coalition that represents about 5 percent of households.

Because middle-class parents and suburbanites have no skin in the gap-closing enterprise, reforms are tolerated rather than embraced--and only until the consequences for other children become clear. The most recent annual Gallup poll on attitudes towards schooling reported that just 20 percent of respondents said that “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” was the most important of the nation’s education challenges. Indeed, while Gallup reports that just 18 percent of the public gives the nation’s schools an A or a B, it finds that a sizable majority thinks their own elementary and middle schools deserve that grade.

This makes school reform a losing vote for suburban legislators--one that they can take because it’s the right thing to do, but that is calculated to burn rather than win political chits. This is bad policy, and it is bad politics. In this case, it’s bad politics largely because it’s bad policy. After all, slighting or dismissing the concerns of most Americans is a poorly conceived strategy for winning or maintaining public support.

A well-intentioned effort to promote social justice has struggled with the thorny fact that the American system is Tocquevillian and not Rousseauian. It eschews Rousseau’s millennial ambitions for Tocqueville’s “self-interest probably understood.” And that means the solutions that take root and succeed in the American system are those that work for the whole of the nation.

Achievement gap mania also fosters a false sense of complacency, actually making it easier for suburban and middle-class voters to feel smug about their schools. Given that the vast majority of Americans tend to like their school, it’s no surprise that professionals and suburbanites tend to regard “reforms"--from merit pay to charter schooling--as things that they’ll tolerate so long as they’re reserved for urban schools, but that they won’t stand for in their own communities. The gap-closing rationale rationalizes and ratifies this status quo while ghettoizing sensible, useful efforts to overhaul and modernize an anachronistic model of schooling.

Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias has noted, “Apocalyptic talk about ‘failing’ schools and intense elite focus on the problems of the least-privileged students tends to obscure the more banal reality that most schools are non-optimal in lots of ways...It would actually be more politically useful to have people more focused on the modest but real problems in their own local schools than have them morbidly obsessed with semi-mythical tales of a ‘broken’ school system that they’re fortunate not to be stuck in.”

Solutions designed with an eye to gap-closing can be unhelpful or counterproductive when it comes to serving other students and families. Longer school years and longer school days can be terrific for disadvantaged students or low-achievers, but may be an unnecessary imposition on some middle-class families who may already offer their kids terrific summer opportunities and value the traditions and rhythms of the familiar summer vacation. The same is true when it comes to instructional approaches that may be powerfully effective for at-risk students but not for students in other circumstances.

And, “reform” efforts to gauge teacher performance based on value-added achievement scores and to then encourage the “best” teachers to migrate to schools and classrooms serving low-achieving children offers nothing to middle-class families. Truth is, if your reform strategy involves telling middle-class or suburban parents that you want to systematically encourage their favorite teachers to go elsewhere, your best bet for getting them on board probably involves getting them drunk.

Responding to such concerns, as gap-closers often do, by belittling them or telling these parents they should be more socially conscious is not only profoundly disrespectful of parents eager to do right by their kids, but is a sure-fire strategy for ensuring that school reform never amounts to more than a politically perilous, self-righteous crusade at odds with the interests of middle-class families and parents.

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.