School & District Management

Scholars Seek New Solutions to the ‘Achievement Gap’

October 07, 1998 4 min read
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Alarmed by the widening gap in achievement between black and white students over the past 10 years, a group of leading scholars offers in a new book their suggestions for how to close it.

The social scientists say they don’t know precisely why the gulf has been increasing, and they offer what they admit is a “sketchy agenda” for reversing the trend. But they hope their 523-page book will refocus attention on an issue they believe has for too long been relegated to the back burner.

“The good news here is ... people are paying some attention,” said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that promotes school reform. “We’re not sweeping the widening gap under the table anymore.”

The book, The Black-White Test Score Gap (Brookings Institution Press), also seeks to direct the debate away from suggestions that achievement differences between racial groups stem from genetics. That argument received national attention in a widely debated 1994 book, The Bell Curve.

“What The Bell Curve did was make it more difficult to discuss this topic,” said David Grissmer, a senior management scientist at the RAND Corp. and a contributor to the new book. “This book will move us past that and open up the discussion again.”

Solutions Unclear

The bad news, however, is that the scholars from some of the nation’s elite universities and think tanks don’t know exactly what schools and communities need to do. They say minority students have benefited more than whites from experiments with smaller classes, and cite evidence suggesting that improving the quality of teachers especially helps low achievers

But they don’t offer specific suggestions on how to implement those policies.

“While we are convinced that reducing the gap is both necessary and possible, we do not have a detailed blueprint for achieving this goal and neither does anyone else,” Christopher Jencks, a Harvard University professor of social policy, and Meredith Phillips, an assistant professor of policy studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, write in the book’s introduction.

The achievement gap is of keen interest to many educators outside the world of academic research, and urban superintendents have long struggled with the problem.

“This is a social science issue that needs ‘all of the above’ solutions,” said Waldemar Rojas, the superintendent of the 62,000-student San Francisco schools. “This is not an infectious disease that you identify and you treat with an antibiotic.”

The gap in test scores, which had narrowed steadily for decades, began to widen in 1988. But the scholars who collaborated on the new book did not start thoroughly examining it until the year after The Bell Curve‘s publication. Mr. Jencks, a respected social scientist, organized a series of scholarly seminars to discuss research issues raised by the book, including its thesis that student achievement is tied to genetics. (“Education Experts Assail Book on I.Q. and Class,” Oct. 26, 1994.)

The case against a genetic link to intelligence “is pretty overwhelming,” Mr. Jencks said at a Sept. 25 symposium hosted by the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank that published the book.

The success in reducing the gap throughout much of the 20th century, and particularly in the 15 years leading up to 1988, show that educational and social interventions work, the authors argue. Much of the evidence is based on a variety of tests, from basic vocabulary tests administered since 1909 to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has been conducted since 1971.

Even as the gap has expanded since 1988, the gulf between blacks and whites diminished by half over that same period on the NAEP reading exam for 17-year-olds and by one-third on the NAEP math exam for that age group. “That’s a huge amount of change in one generation,” Mr. Jencks said at the recent symposium.

Still, the average African-American scores below 75 percent of whites on most standardized tests, according to the new book.

‘Great Mystery’

One of The Bell Curve‘s co-authors said last week that the research by Mr. Jencks and his collaborators should not settle the debate. “There is a great mystery about the test-score gap,” said Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve with the late Richard Herrnstein and is a senior fellow of social policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “There is probably some kind of biological involvement.”

While that debate may be not settled anytime soon, it is clear that Mr. Jencks and his collaborators have sought to focus on what can be done to close the gap.

The Black-White Test Score Gap cites research on class-size reduction in Tennessee suggesting that low-achieving students benefit the most from smaller K-3 classes and that their gains persist for several years. Other research shows that improving the quality of teachers raises achievement for all children.

However, the book’s critics say, that doesn’t mean those methods will work on a wider scale.

Hiring extra teachers to reduce class sizes will dilute the quality of the teaching force, said Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y. And reducing class size often means that suburban districts will recruit the best teachers away from the inner cities, he added.

But in the next few years, Mr. Grissmer of RAND said, the scholars hope that research will explain why smaller classes lead to better student achievement. “It’s the answer to the question ‘Why?’ that’s going to make efficient policies,” he said. “That’s the Holy Grail question that we’re going to need to take another five years to answer.”

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