The Achievement Gap and its Discontents: Thoughts on Rick Hess’ New Essay

American Enterprise Institute education expert Rick Hess has written a characteristically thought-provoking essay arguing that education reformers focus too single-mindedly on the "achievement gap" — the difference between the test scores of low-income students of color and their white, middle-class peers. There's a lot to chew on in the piece, but here's my summary of Hess' main critiques:

1. In many schools, too little attention is paid to the needs of gifted and talented students

2. In an effort to "raise expectations," too many unprepared students are enrolled in Advanced Placement and other "college level" courses, whose curricula are then watered-down

3. Attempts to impose accountability on teachers by deploying student test scores ignore the fact that in middle-class and affluent schools, where the majority of students will easily achieve proficiency in reading and math, test score "growth" may not be the best marker of teaching success

4. In order to raise the reading and math scores of the lowest performers, less instruction time is devoted to the study of music, art, science, civics and other subjects that aren't considered "basic skills;" polls show that the majority of parents oppose such curriculum-narrowing 

5. Other worthy civic and social goals, such as racial and socioeconomic integration, are no longer on the reform radar: "Philanthropic foundations that support education causes are interested in serving as many poor and minority children as possible; when 30% to 40% of a student body is made up of white or affluent students, the school is deemed suspect, as reform-minded foundations see such programs as "wasting" a third of their seats."

Hess astutely points out that this agenda takes the broad aims of the Great Society–reducing poverty and inequality and improving social welfare–and grafts them onto a single public institution that may not be well-prepared to fulfill such ambitious goals: the high-needs school. 

What's more, the "eradicate the gap" agenda imposes a school reform mandate on all schools that has been crafted with only the poorest children in mind. As a result, middle-class and affluent parents feel disconnected from the school reform debate. 

It's also true that point 1 (you shouldn't ignore the gifted) and point 5 (integration matters) are intimately linked. As I learned when I reported from my hometown of Ossining, New York several years ago, districts that cancel gifted and talented programs in an effort to raise expectations for all students are playing with fire: Engaged, affluent, well-educated parents may choose to withdraw their children from schools that don't offer enrichment programs, and that decision can negatively impact the entire student population. The trick, of course, is to offer enough G&T opportunities to challenge the academically talented while not simultaneously segregating gifted kids in totally separate classrooms, which threatens to undo many of the social and academic benefits of integration.  

For this reason, I'm a big fan of an extended school day with rich afternoon enrichment opportunities for both the "gifted" and those who are struggling academically. 

The last point I'll make is that Hess' thinking truly represents the convergence point between the right and left critiques of standards-and-accountability reform. Left critics of No Child Left Behind also complain about curriculum narrowing, over-reliance on test scores, and asking schools to do too much in lieu of a broader anti-poverty agenda. Progressives, though, would be less comfortable than Hess is arguing that school reform should focus more on middle class, affluent, or gifted students; instead, we tend to focus on how "choice and accountability" stratgies, despite their excellent intentions, continue to leave behind some of the neediest students, by requiring parents to jump through an ever more complicated set of logistical hoops to enroll their kids in decent public schools, for example. 

I really recommend the Hess essay. Lots to think about and argue with.

6 thoughts on “The Achievement Gap and its Discontents: Thoughts on Rick Hess’ New Essay

  1. Steve

    Everybody is a big fan of a longer school day.
    You must PAY for it. You cannot, as in Chicago, rescind a 4% raise for teachers three weeks before mandating 90 more minutes of classroom time. OK? The Chicago School Board canceled raises. Canceled!
    Rick Hess has no idea how much more money it takes for teachers to keep their own children in latch-key programs so that they can teach longer every day.
    Pay them. Pay the teachers!

  2. Max Bean

    Great overview, really important topic. Thanks for reporting on this. A couple thoughts:

    Your points about integration and supporting gifted students are well taken. Clearly, there’s a potential conflict there, and it has unfortunate consequences in many schools serving economically diverse populations. What’s important to keep in mind and may not be obvious to those who don’t work in schools is that instructional methods have a huge impact on this issue. Direct, top-down instructional models of the kind favored in many inner-city schools these days, lend themselves to ability grouping, because anyone who’s a bit ahead will be bored to tears, and anyone who’s a bit behind will be lost. Instructional models that rely more on student collaboration, investigation, independent problem-solving, etc. are often better suited to mixed ability groups.

    Of course, as is always the case in education, it all depends on how these instructional models are implemented, how capable the teacher is, how strong the school culture is, etc. Yet, as a teacher, I’ve worked in a wide variety of contexts, and I’ve found some instructional styles far more effective than others for dealing with variations in ability.

    I also found Hess’s points about the dangers of our excessive focus on low-performing and low-income students compelling. I posted recently on the degree to which the America’s under-achievement (as compared to other industrialized nations) persists among our higher performing students. To summarize, the heart of the problem is indeed our lowest-performing quartile, but our middle quartiles are none too impressive, and, in math and science, even into our top quartile is frighteningly weak.

    Back in January, I wrote about the same phenomenon with respect to socioeconomic class (SEC). It turns out that, considering their level of socioeconomic privilege (or lack thereof), our lower-middle SEC quartile is actually doing considerably worse than our bottom quartile.

  3. John Thompson

    Yes, Max you made great points, as you do in your blog. I also see posts like Hess’ as being positive indicators of a possible breakup of the unholy alliance that is data-driven reform.

    I always respect Hess and frequently agree with him. Being a liberal, and a former lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and a state ACLU board and litagation committee member, I agree with his discussion of the Ed Trust and Marian Wright Edelman, who otherwise is a hero of mine. They took the 70s vintage of civil rights litigation and used its approach to data as proof of discriminatory intent and applied it to schools. (Even then, I had doubts about affirmative action, in terms of helping poor children of color as opposed to women and middle class minorities, that I kept to myself. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop my doubts about “Comparable Worth.”)

    Once liberal “reformers” adopted these litigious methods, then litigious attitudes were bound to follow. Frustrated “reformers” in the Ed Trust, for instance made the extraordinary claim that schools were functioning as they were “designed” to function. It then became inevitable that the tactic of treating schools and teachers as the architects of an intentional plan to keep poor kids of color down was bound to create the bitter fight we have today.

  4. JoanJaeckel

    Dana- thanks for your thoughts. There is a way to have choice and not leave anyone behind. Choice disrupts the system because, as its set up now, “choice” schools appear to be desirable roses in a field of weeds. As long as there are only generic ‘plants’ in the field, everything is hunky-dory. But plant a rose and everything changes. Even if only one choice school exists in the field, its mere existence makes all the other schools appear to be weeds or ‘not choice’ or just dull ‘plants’. Anyone stuck in them is ‘left behind’. The solution is simple. Do what nature does. Grow variety. Lose the pedagogical monoculture.When choice is the only choice then choice becomes the norm and inherently fair.


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