Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


How Can We Close The Achievement Gap?

Susan Notes:


This question was posed at the National Journal Expert Blogs site, and we have two very different answers.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released a report on the black-white achievement gap that found black students still trail their white counterparts in reading and math by significant margins, even though they have registered some progress. In grade 8, in all 42 states where information was available, there was no significant change in the reading gap from 1998 to 2007. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., called this news alarming.

Since closing the achievement gap is a major national priority, why aren't we making better progress? What new ideas are there out there to close the gap? Are there individual states or schools making gains that could serve as a model for the rest of the country?

-- Eliza Krigman, NationalJournal.com

Here's an answer you won't find your corporate politico quoting.

Richard Rothstein, Research Associate, Economic Policy Institute

We can better understand the new NAEP report on the persistent test score gap by examining it in combination with another study, also just released, that shows the cognitive gap well-established long before children enter school. Commissioned by the Council of Chief State School Officers and prepared by a research team at Child Trends, it is based on an analysis of a federal data set, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study â€" Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). Like NAEP, these data track a nationally representative sample of children, in this case infants born in 2001. The children were then assessed when they were nine months old, and again at age two. The NAEP report shows (Figures 13 and 15) that, for example, in fourth grade reading, the black-white difference is about 26 to 27 scale points, or about 0.8 standard deviations. The ECLS-B report shows that at nine months old, the cognitive gap[1] was already almost 0.2 standard deviations. By two years of age, the cognitive gap[2] was over 0.6 standard deviations. In other words, ¾ of the black-white test score gap at age nine is...

We can better understand the new NAEP report on the persistent test score gap by examining it in combination with another study, also just released, that shows the cognitive gap well-established long before children enter school.

Commissioned by the Council of Chief State School Officers and prepared by a research team at Child Trends, it is based on an analysis of a federal data set, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study â€" Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). Like NAEP, these data track a nationally representative sample of children, in this case infants born in 2001. The children were then assessed when they were nine months old, and again at age two.

The NAEP report shows (Figures 13 and 15) that, for example, in fourth grade reading, the black-white difference is about 26 to 27 scale points, or about 0.8 standard deviations. The ECLS-B report shows that at nine months old, the cognitive gap[1] was already almost 0.2 standard deviations. By two years of age, the cognitive gap[2] was over 0.6 standard deviations.

In other words, ¾ of the black-white test score gap at age nine is already established by age two.

The ECLS-B analysis also shows that much of this early black-white gap is associated with differences in family income and maternal education. At two years of age, for example, the cognitive gap between toddlers whose mothers have less than a high school education and those whose mothers have a bachelor̢۪s degree is more than 0.8 standard deviations.

We've known all this for a long time, of course. Study after study has concluded that most of the variation in student achievement is attributable to relative student social and economic disadvantage, and a much smaller part is attributable to the quality of schools.

And we know why. Many, including I, have documented this: disadvantaged (low-income and minority) children get less routine preventive medical and dental care, leading to more school absences as a result of illness. They are more prone to asthma, resulting in more sleeplessness, irritability, and lack of exercise. They experience lower birth weight as well as more lead poisoning and iron-deficiency anemia, each of which leads to diminished cognitive ability and more behavior problems. Their families frequently fall behind in rent and move, so children switch schools more often, losing continuity of instruction. Disadvantaged children are, in general, not read to aloud as often or exposed to complex language and large vocabularies. Their parents have low-wage jobs and are more frequently laid off, causing family stress and more arbitrary discipline. The neighborhoods through which these children walk to school and in which they play have more crime and drugs and fewer adult role models with professional careers. Such children are more often in single-parent families and so get less adult attention. They have fewer cross-country trips, visits to museums and zoos, music or dance lessons, and organized sports leagues to develop their ambition, cultural awareness, and self-confidence. Each of these disadvantages makes only a small contribution to the achievement gap, but cumulatively, they explain a lot.

Do we really think that better schools alone, and more accountability for teachers, can overcome all of this? [emphasis added]

This does not mean that what schools do is unimportant, or that we should not do everything we can to improve school quality so that the achievement gap can be narrowed. But the tragedy is that for decades now, the central assumption of national education policy has been that if only schools were good enough, they could completely, or substantially undo the achievement gap that exists before, indeed long before, children enter pre-school.

This assumption is implausible. Its advocates often point to particular schools that have allegedly "closed" the achievement gap, and argue that if these schools can do it, any can. But the exceptional schools that purportedly close the gap are typically schools of choice whose parents are more motivated and supportive than typical parents; or their excellence is only episodic â€" they post high test scores only in one subject (math or reading), only in one grade, and only in one year, not consistently in all of these; or their excellence is defined narrowly as meeting a low proficiency point on a standardized test, not as excellence in a broad, well-rounded curriculum.

These allegedly exceptional schools may indeed be excellent, even if their claims to close the achievement gap are overblown. There is certainly a wide range of school quality and we should do everything we can to replicate the best ones. But this is different from expecting schools to substantially narrow the achievement gap.

Kati Haycock's post, below, properly notes, for example, that in Delaware, big test score gains for minority students have been realized by a series of smart state policies: Delaware "added reading specialists in schools to coach teachers and work with struggling students, and districts began using stronger curricular materials emphasizing vocabulary and writing." But take a look at the Delaware data (Figure 22 on page 37) in the new NAEP report that is the subject of this discussion: in fourth grade reading since 1998, the scores of black students increased by 24 scale points, about 2/3 of a standard deviation. But white scores also increased (though not as much), so the black-white gap narrowed by less than 1/3 of a standard deviation.

This is often the case when we focus on achievement gap data. We note that the achievement gap has not closed (or has done so only slightly) and denounce schools for failing to close it. But in doing so, we ignore the substantial improvement in both minority and white student achievement. The most glaring example of this is in the national math data. The NAEP report shows (see Figure 1) that in math, black 9-year olds now (i.e., 2004) perform at a level as high as white students performed in 1986. This is a phenomenal improvement, for which we give very little notice, because the white-black gap (about 23 scale points) is nearly unchanged.

In 1966, the Coleman report focused national attention on the foolishness of a national policy that put disproportionate emphasis on school reform, to the exclusion of improvements in the conditions that send children to school less ready to learn. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, along with Frederick Mosteller, two policy giants, both recently deceased, studied the Coleman report and had this to say:

"To the simple of mind or heart, such findings might be interpreted to mean that 'schools don't make a difference.' This is absurd. Schools make a very great difference to children. Children don't think up algebra on their own. It took a whole sequence of civilizations even to invent it. But given that schools have reached their present levels of quality, the observed variation in schools was reported by [the Coleman report] to have little effect upon school achievement. This actually means a large joint effect owing to both schools and home background (including region, degree of urbanization, socioeconomic status, and ethnic group), little that is unique to schools or homes. They vary together."[3]

Whether children learn algebra has everything to do with schools. But which children learn algebra better than other children results from differences both in home background and in schools (with most of the impact from the former).

The Child Trends report concludes its documentation of the nine-month and two-year cognitive gap by recommending an emphasis on policy to address the cognitive shortcomings of disadvantaged children before they are ready for school. It endorses, for example, the research-validated Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program that President Obama proposes to fund. NFP provides first-time teen mothers with home visits from a public health nurse who advises and supports prenatal care, child development and family planning. These home visits begin during pregnancy and continue through the child̢۪s second birthday. Child Trends also endorses high quality early childhood center-based programs that combine parental education, professional care-givers, and adequate physical space to develop children's small motor skills that are essential for cognitive development. And it calls attention to the federally funded (but limited) Early Head Start program that provides comprehensive home- and center-based support for low-income mothers, infants, and toddlers.

A year ago, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) campaign issued a statement calling attention to "solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement. The persistent failure of policy makers to act on that evidenceâ€"in tandem with a school-improvement agendaâ€"is a major reason why the association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement remains so strong."

The BBA statement urged that school improvement be pursued, but in combination with provision to disadvantaged children of high-quality early childhood programs, of routine and preventive health care in school based health-centers, and of high-quality after school and summer programs (because the socioeconomic influences that depress achievement in the pre-school years continue to operate later in the out-of-school hours).

There is, of course, one way that school reform alone can close the achievement gap. Examining, again, the data in the NAEP report, if Delaware had denied white students access to literacy coaches and to an improved curriculum, we could have depressed white achievement sufficiently so that the improvements in black students' literacy alone could have closed the gap. Likewise, if white students' fourth grade math performance nationwide had not improved at all since 1986, we would have entirely closed this achievement gap because of the substantial gains posted by black children.

But this is not what anyone seriously advocates. If we want to narrow the achievement gap as well as raise student achievement, we have to pursue policies like those advocated by Pedro Noguera and others, in their posts below, by Child Trends and by the Bolder, Broader Approach campaign â€" combine school improvement with narrowing the socioeconomic inequalities that influence children's development outside of school.


[1] For nine-month olds, the cognitive gap was assessed by observation of exploration of objects, purposeful exploration, expressive jabbering, early problem solving, and naming of objects.

[2] For two-year olds, the cognitive gap was assessed by observation of receptive vocabulary, expressive vocabulary, listening/comprehension, matching/discrimination, and early counting/quantitative skill.

[3] Frederick Mosteller and Daniel P. Moynihan. 1972. "A Pathbreaking Report." In Frederick Mosteller and Daniel P. Moynihan, eds., On Equality of Educational Opportunity. New York: Random House, p. 21.

And here's the boilerplate response from the Center for American Progress, the megaphone for Obama policies. They started out as puppet masters when they wrote his first Senatorial speech on education.

Cynthia G. (Cindy) Brown, Vice President for Education Policy, Center for American Progress

Why aren't we closing the achievement gap? In short, because we've never been serious enough about doing it. Part of the answer has to do with what we mean by "we." The U.S. has the most de-centralized education system of any nation with a highly-developed economy. We have a history of segregation and discrimination that has terrible lingering affects even though overt discrimination has subsided. We also fund our schools more inequitably than other developed countries with too little regard to targeting funds on students with the greatest needs. This is part of the price of having a federalist democracy, and it means that serious solutions to problems that boil down to what transacts in classrooms are most likely to come from the local or state level. If we're serious about closing the achievement gap nationwide, it's necessary to focus energy around translating promising local and state practices to other jurisdictions. And this is precisely the logic of the Race to the Top Fund, which offers competitive grants to states willing to document in scrupulous detail their progress on a set of four common metrics that spring from evidence that some districts and states have struck on ways to address the achievement gap.

Why aren't we closing the achievement gap? In short, because we̢۪ve never been serious enough about doing it. Part of the answer has to do with what we mean by "we." The U.S. has the most de-centralized education system of any nation with a highly-developed economy. We have a history of segregation and discrimination that has terrible lingering affects even though overt discrimination has subsided. We also fund our schools more inequitably than other developed countries with too little regard to targeting funds on students with the greatest needs.

This is part of the price of having a federalist democracy, and it means that serious solutions to problems that boil down to what transacts in classrooms are most likely to come from the local or state level. If we're serious about closing the achievement gap nationwide, it's necessary to focus energy around translating promising local and state practices to other jurisdictions. And this is precisely the logic of the Race to the Top Fund, which offers competitive grants to states willing to document in scrupulous detail their progress on a set of four common metrics that spring from evidence that some districts and states have struck on ways to address the achievement gap.

The Race to the Top metrics, listed below, honor the work of states like Massachusetts, which took the high-road of accountability by setting high standards, Louisiana for shedding light on the relationship between its teacher preparation programs and the achievement of their graduates' students, and Tennessee for investing in the infrastructure of measuring teacher effectiveness and pioneering the use of student achievement data to inform teacher compensation. No district or state has it all figured out, however, so we need initiatives like the Race to the Top to showcase what works and to bring successful approaches to scale. And, crucially, the Race to the Top is voluntary. Elected officials and organizations who choose to keep their states on the sidelines will make it much easier to answer the question of why we aren't closing the achievement gap in the future.

* Adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace;
* Recruiting, developing, retaining, and rewarding effective teachers and principals;
* Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and
* Turning around our lowest-performing schools (Source: http://www.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/factsheet.html)

Go to the National Journal website for more Expert Blogs.

— Richard Rothstein & Cynthia G. Brown
National Journal Expert Blogs
2009-07-27
http://education.nationaljournal.com/2009/07/how-can-we-close-the-reading-g.php


INDEX OF RESEARCH THAT COUNTS


FAIR USE NOTICE
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.