Our Achievement Gap Mania

Last week, the quarterly journal National Affairs published my essay “Our Achievement Gap Mania.” As I’d suspected it might, the piece seems to have angered a number of educators and reformers who I like and respect. So, I thought I’d try over the next couple days to explain what the fuss is about and why I felt compelled to challenge a well-intentioned, deeply ingrained consensus.

A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in an era of federal educational accountability marked by relentless focus on closing race- and income-based “achievement gaps” in test scores and graduation rates. The language has become instinctive, with a generation of would-be reformers learning to focus on closing achievement gaps. For all the subsequent critiques of NCLB, both deserved and undeserved, this has been universally hailed as an unmitigated good. It is not. It has shortchanged some children. It has undermined public support for reforming schools while ghettoizing school reform. It has narrowed the scope of schooling and stifled educational innovation. Oh, and its moral philosophy is, at best, shaky.

A year ago, Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, moved to eliminate after-school science labs for Advanced Placement classes and five science teachers so that the resources and faculty could be devoted to struggling students, in a push to address “Berkeley’s dismal racial achievement gap.” The New York Times has reported that, in Sacramento, California, low-performing students are only permitted to enroll in math, reading, and gym, in a mad dash to help close the achievement gap. The Center for Applied Linguistics has reported that the share of U.S. elementary schools offering foreign language classes fell by one-fifth from 1997 to 2008. Instruction in foreign language and advanced science have come to be seen as frills.

The all-consuming push to “close achievement gaps” has meant focusing, to the exclusion of nearly all else, on boosting math and reading proficiency and the graduation rates of poor and minority children. The Education Trust, perhaps the nation’s most influential K-12 advocacy group, explains, “Our goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement.” The National Education Foundation has launched its own “Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative.” The California Achievement Gap Educational Foundation was launched in 2008 to “eliminate the systemic achievement gap in California K-12 public education.” Elite charter-school operator Uncommon Schools says its mission is running “outstanding urban charter public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare low-income students to graduate from college.” Education Week, the newspaper of record for American education, ran 63 stories mentioning “achievement gaps” in the first six months of this year.

Indeed, at the elite level, there’s a bipartisan consensus on this question. President Bush bragged in 2008 that NCLB “focused the country’s attention on the fact that we had an achievement gap that–you know, white kids were reading better in the 4th grade than Latinos or African-American kids.”
Echoing Bush, President Obama has termed education the “civil rights issue of our time” and declared that his agenda is intended to address “the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeated the familiar formulation last year at the National Press Club, declaring, “The achievement gap is unacceptable. Education is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Such sentiments are admirable. And it’d be hard to argue that any of this is bad on its own terms. The legacy of achievement gap mania isn’t necessarily undesirable. Focusing on the neediest students is admirable, as far as it goes. With limited time, talent, and resources, we can’t do everything–and it’s not unreasonable that some think our priority in every case should be the most in need.

The real problem has been the unwillingness of gap-closers to acknowledge the costs of their agenda or its implications. And yet, the groupthink consensus that the business of education is “closing achievement gaps” has made it tough to talk honestly about the costs–for fear of being branded a racist or thought unconcerned with inequities. It has dreadfully narrowed the potential coalition for reform. It has distorted the way we’ve approached educational choice, accountability, and reform. It has warped and retarded the pace, reach, and power of school improvement efforts. And it has yielded a stifling and ultimately troubling vision of schooling. If you’re curious as to how I can say such things, check out the essay here.

-Frederick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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