Accountability Opinion

Still a Bobo in Paradise

By Eduwonkette — June 13, 2008 2 min read

Meet the Status Quo. It includes the Chairman of the Board of the NAACP (Julian Bond), the former president of the Urban League (Hugh Price), a Nobel prize winning economist and expert on early childhood interventions (Jim Heckman), some of the country’s most distinguished experts on urban poverty (William Julius Wilson, Christopher Jencks) and educational accountability (Helen Ladd), a well-known professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (T. Berry Brazelton), two former Surgeon Generals (Jocelyn Elders and Richard Carmona), Ernie Cortes (of the Industrial Areas Foundation), school practitioners like Debbie Meier, Ted Sizer, and Jim Comer who have spent their careers challenging the status quo, and too many other people to list here who have dedicated their lives to improving the lives of poor and minority children. And yes, David, they accept your apology.

I really do hate my permanent residence in the reality-based community, but at least half of the achievement gap that exists between black and white students - the fact that the average black 12th grader performs at about the 16th percentile of the white distribution (a gap of about 1 standard deviation)- cannot possibly be attributed to the K-12 schools. Why? The average black student enters kindergarten testing at about the 25 percentile of the white distribution in math (a gap of .663 standard deviations), and the 35th percentile of the white distribution in reading (a gap of .4 standard deviations). “Squeezing teachers,” “dealing with teachers who don’t teach,” or “holding teachers feet to the fire,” I’m sorry to say, are not going to address that gap. And between kindergarten and 12th grade, kids are only in school 22% of their waking hours. It turns out that poor students’ slower rate of learning in the summer plays a significant role in increasing existing gaps.

Of course schools play a role in exacerbating these problems - no one said they don’t - in particular because of the unequal distribution of teachers across schools. We can all acknowledge that this distribution of teachers is a partial legacy of contract rules - still in place in many districts - that gave preference to senior teachers. Both coalitions are concerned with attracting and retaining good teachers in hard to staff schools, and perhaps they can find some common ground there.

But it would be great if we grounded this discussion in some basic facts - facts that might include the current distribution of school effects, and how much of the achievement gap we could expect to see narrowed if we move a student from a below to an above average school (critical for the school choice question); how modest the effects of accountability have historically been on gaps (very little action at all on the black-white gap - Texas also comes to mind), and how more “vigorous accountability” will differ in ways that produce different outcomes; how much of the gap is a function of school-year versus summer learning; and how much of the gap is there when kids start school.

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