Student Achievement

Reporter’s Notebook

By Karla Scoon Reid — February 14, 2001 4 min read
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Researchers Probe Achievement Gap

The “achievement gap” has bedeviled the nation’s schools for decades.

But researchers who gathered here this month presented a variety of strategies, including smaller class sizes and targeted federal spending, that could help raise the test scores of minority students, who typically lag behind their white classmates.

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and Edison Schools Inc., the New York City-based school-management company, sponsored the Feb. 1 research conference. The work featured at the daylong gathering will be published in one volume by the Brookings Institution by the end of the year.

John E. Chubb, the chief education officer for Edison, said the conference aimed to highlight “pockets of success” and explore what efforts need to be made to shrink the achievement gap.

He added: “There is indeed reason for hope.”

While the view from researchers has been that “class size doesn’t matter,” black students do benefit from attending smaller classes in the early grades, said Alan B. Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

Mr. Krueger, who co-wrote “Would Smaller Classes Close the Black-White Achievement Gap?” with Diane M. Whitmore, a doctoral student in economics at Princeton, focused on Tennessee’s Project STAR, a randomized experiment in class-size reduction for pupils in kindergarten through 3rd grade conducted during the 1980s.

Black students in smaller classes outperformed their black classmates in larger classes on standardized tests, Mr. Krueger said. They also were more likely to take college-entrance exams, he said. For example, 41.3 percent of black students who were assigned to a small class in the program later took a college-entrance exam, compared with 31.8 percent of black students in classes of regular sizes.

Smaller classes had a limited effect on the test scores of white and high-achieving students, Mr. Krueger said. It is unclear why black students tend to benefit from smaller classes, he added.

David W. Grissmer, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, argued that federal dollars tied directly to such efforts as smaller class sizes would help close the achievement gap between minority and white students.

Although many states are currently grappling with equalizing spending among school districts, only the federal government could address the disparities in education spending across the nation, Mr. Grissmer said. Southern and Western states spend the least on education, he noted, while they educate a large share of the nation’s minority students, including Hispanics.

To bring such states near the national average in spending would cost about $25 billion annually, he estimated. Urban districts require additional resources, Mr. Grissmer said, because their needs are often more costly, because of limited space and more extensive challenges.

The federal government also needs to take the lead on further research on elementary and secondary education, he argued, to identify how and where additional resources should be spent. Loan-forgiveness and scholarship programs much like those used to attract recruits to the military could bolster depleted teaching ranks and improve the quality of incoming teachers nationwide, Mr. Grissmer added. A federal program could focus on critical-need areas such as mathematics and science teachers or on regions where teachers are in short supply, such as cities.

Another study found mixed results for students of various ethnicities in voucher programs.

Paul E. Peterson, the director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University, and William G. Howell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, studied privately funded voucher programs in New York City, the District of Columbia, and Dayton, Ohio.

The researchers found that after two years, black students using privately funded vouchers to attend private schools in those cities scored 6.3 percentile points higher on combined math and reading tests than black students who remained in public schools.

Mr. Howell said surveys completed by students’ parents showed a variety of advantages to the private school environment, including fewer school disruptions, better communication, and more homework.

It’s unclear, however, why Latino students did not show the same academic gains and effects from the environment, Mr. Peterson said.

Advocacy groups have often blamed schools for “tracking” minority children into lower-level courses, but a paper presented here found that a student’s socioeconomic status—and not race—had more of an impact on his or her track assignment and academic achievement.

Samuel R. Lucas, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said his study found that tracking had no direct effect on widening the achievement gap.

To close the conference, organizers asked principals and teachers from like-minded schools such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, in New York City and Edison, the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools, for firsthand accounts of strategies they believe would help close the achievement gap.

David Levin, a co-founder of KIPP and the director of the KIPP Academy in New York, stressed the need for strong leadership, high-quality instruction, an extended school day, and parental and community support to craft a recipe for student success.

Still, Mr. Levin agreed that duplicating those ingredients in every American classroom would be a challenge without the “right people, the right training, and the right accountability.”

He added, laughing: “We need Oprah.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook


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