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Gapology 101

A nasty little piece proving that the critic of your foes aint necessarily your friend.

by Dan Seligman

The latest preposterous idea in educationland is "closing the achievement gap." Educators everywhere are enlisting in the campaign and somehow not noticing that it can't possibly succeed.
Easily the strangest meeting I've attended this year was a symposium at Columbia University's Teachers College that took place on Oct. 24 and 25 before an audience of maybe 550 academics, foundation bureaucrats, toilers in think tanks, government officials and others who make a living off the education sector. The symposium was the kickoff event of an activist organization within the college called the Campaign for Educational Equity. (It calls itself the "action arm of the college.")

The equity theme here has two components. One is that the prime objective of educational policy is to eliminate the "achievement gap"--the gap between what's learned in school by disadvantaged kids and what's learned by middle- and upper-class kids. The other element is the notion that the U.S. would be much better off if only we devoted more resources to the education sector.

Pursuing the latter, Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, argued in an op-ed piece in the New York Times appearing shortly after the symposium that immense gains are to be had from keeping underachievers in school. High school dropouts, he noted, earn $260,000 less over the course of their lives than do high school graduates. But it is wildly unrealistic to assume that the students who drop out would earn as much as those who graduate if only they had hung around for four years--an assumption ignoring tons of evidence that the dropouts are a population with trouble hanging on to jobs and have lower ability levels. The data tell us that the average dropout has an IQ that puts him at around the fifteenth percentile of those who graduate. Not exactly what employers are looking for.

The achievement-gap angle has been incorporated in the "mission statement" of the college, which now includes this declaration: "Teachers College is dedicated to promoting equity and excellence in education and overcoming the gap in achievement between the most and least advantaged groups in this country." In his opening remarks at the symposium, TC President Arthur Levine proclaimed that he and his colleagues were now focusing all their resources on this one issue. Other speakers repeatedly referred to the gap as both a moral outrage and an economic disaster. It would have been hard to find a member of the audience not in total agreement with these preachings.

What's so strange about all this? Just one little thing: It is not possible to close the achievement gap. The mission statement is a summons to a fool's errand. The reason that the gap will never be eliminated is that intelligence rises with socioeconomic status. Estimated correlations between social class and IQ range from 0.3 to 0.7 (on a scale where 0 means no connection and 1 describes two variables marching in lockstep). Those figures tell us that the poor and disadvantaged have less cognitive ability than those from higher-status families. Cognitive ability predicts scores on achievement tests.

In partial defense of the 550 educrats murmuring approval of TC's mission statement, it must be said that they are not alone in failing to understand that the gap cannot be closed. Harvard, too, has an Achievement Gap Initiative, run by Ronald F. Ferguson of the Kennedy School of Government. (Ferguson was a speaker at the symposium.) Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform is also committed to fighting the gap. And, of course, the federal No Child Left Behind program, which became law in 2001, claims to be doing likewise and on a much larger scale. The objective of the federal law, wildly unrealistic but carved in legislative stone, is to get all American children up to a "proficient" level in reading and math by 2014.

Absolutely nothing has happened to suggest that the federal government will succeed in this effort, and a few brave educators are beginning to say out loud that the cause is hopeless. William J. Mathis, writing in a recent issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, compares current plans for closing the gap between poor and middle-class kids to "an exercise in ritualistic magic."

It is perhaps natural for professional educators contemplating the gap to concentrate on teaching ability--on what schools can deliver--but learning is a joint venture. It also depends on what students are capable of assimilating. Everyone hits a brick wall at some point. With some students it may not happen until they are exposed to quantum mechanics. With others it happens with long division. Most students are well inside those two extremes, but the fact remains that disadvantaged students hit the wall earlier and learn less.

Which brings us to the ultimate mystery about the educational equity campaign. How could the leaders of Teachers College commit themselves to an enterprise guaranteed to fail? It turns out (surprise!) that they don't think it will fail. I asked President Levine how the achievement gap could be closed, given the evident gap in learning ability, and received a spirited reply that boiled down to the argument that IQ doesn't matter in achievement. He said in a telephone interview: "Your assumption that one group has higher learning ability than the other--there's no evidence that that's the case."

I also spoke with Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity. He was recruited by Teachers College after mounting a monumental lawsuit that, after 12 years in the courts, has won a verdict (still being appealed by the state) providing for additional outlays of $5.6 billion for public education in New York City. Asked about the IQ dimension of the problem, Rebell was also dismissive: "I'm skeptical of all the attention going to that area."

Another TC symposium is scheduled for next fall.

— Dan Seligman


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