Rick Hess’ and Mike Petrilli’s Wrong Thinking About Achievement Gaps
These days, your editor is trying to shy away from commenting on the pieces coming from both education traditionalists and school reformers at this point in education policy’s silly season. Between the intellectually schizophrenic claptrap on the No Child Left Behind Act from American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond, Duke’s Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske defense of the Poverty Myth of Education, and the otherwise thoughtful Whitney Tilson’s misguided criticism of Republican and conservative school reformers, I am ready to head out on my vacation to relatively-sane American Ozarks, where I can be reminded once again that the Beltway is La-La Land without a tan.
But then, Hess decided to team up with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to rehash one of his least-thoughtful arguments: That the focus of federal policy and the school reform movement on stemming racial-, ethnic- and gender-based achievement gaps (or what Hess calls “achievement gap mania”) has siphoned research, policymaking and funding away from addressing other educational issues, and, as he declared in September, “has pushed all other considerations to the periphery”. This time focusing on the Obama administration’s efforts to address the racial disparities within traditional district gifted-and-talented programs such as those in Atlanta (in which far more white students end up getting into those programs while far more black students, who make up the vast of majority students, end up in special ed), Hess and Petrilli declared that such efforts will “dilute high-level classes” and stop “our ablest kids” from having “the chance to excel”. From where they, this is one more sign that “our single-minded focus on closing achievement gaps” exemplified by the No Child Left Behind Act, has “almost certainly hurt our top students.”
As readers may remember, this is another version of the conceit Dropout Nation has spent parts of the last four months Ginzu-knifing into mincemeat. As I’ve noted, Hess has done a poor job of proving his argument that there are negative (and terrible) consequences that come out of focusing on stemming achievement gaps. He hasn’t proven his view that the focus of reformers on stemming those gaps have has starved other topics of policymaking and philanthropic resources. The examples Hess uses (including the improper uses of differentiated instruction methods) merely prove that America’s system of recruiting and training teachers is in sore need of an overhaul.
Most importantly, he fails to realize that the achievement gap is not merely a small problem isolated to urban failure factories. When 28 percent of suburbanite fourth-graders read Below Basic proficiency — including one out of every five kids in those schools who are not receiving free- or reduced-priced lunch are functionally illiterate) — such assumptions are not even close to reality. And when at least 1.2 million fourth-grade students, or one-third of the nation’s students in that grade are likely to drop out — and nearly 1 million more of their classmates who are barely reading at Basic proficiency unlikely to succeed in college and career — we have a moral, intellectual, and systems-change obligation to focus on stemming achievement gaps.
But Hess (with the help of Petrilli) attempts to make these same arguments over and over. And once again, without much success.
For one, they attempt to use the study Fordham conducted with the Northwest Evaluation Association on the performance of high-achieving students — which shows that a third of those students fell behind over time — to prove their point. The problem? The study itself, a rigorous, well-developed piece of education research, never offers any conclusions on why this happened; the lead researcher on the study, John Cronin, made that point when he said that the study “wasn’t designed to be inferential. Essentially Hess and Petrilli are engaging in what can one can only call pure speculation. Especially since, as Ulrich Boser and Diana Epstein of the Center for American Progress point out in their own analysis, the study only covers student achievement data between 2005 and 2010, and doesn’t include data predating the passage of No Child in 2001.
If anything, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress would tell a different story. Between 1998 (two years after states began participating voluntarily in NAEP) and 2002 (when participation was made mandatory), the average reading score for top-performing students barely budged, with those students scoring, on average, just 263 points on the reading portion of the exam; average reading scores for those students in the 90th percentile increased by just one point between 2002 and 2011 (to 264). When it comes to math, top-performing students (along with other peers) still continued their progress. Between 1996 and 2002, average math scores for top-performing students increased by seven points (from 316 points to 323); average scores then increased by another six points (from 323 to 329) between 2003 and 2011. These patterns, by the way, also prove true for those students scoring in the 75th percentile on the exam, who would also be considered top-performing students.
Meanwhile the percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading and mathematics has actually increased since the passage of No Child. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of students reaching such levels increased by four percentage points (from 38 percent to 42 percent), a faster clip than three percentage point increase between 1998 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels in math increased by nine percent (from 34 percent to 43 percent), a greater level of growth than between 1996 and 2003.
Contrary to what Hess and Petrilli contend, one could actually say that No Child may have actually helped spur reforms that have led to more students become top performers. At the same time, this information, along with the NWEA study they try to cite to defend their point, also reveals that Hess and Petrilli have embraced an intellectual fallacy: That gifted and talented programs themselves are of high quality.
As University of Houston researchers Sai Bui, Steven Craig and Scott Imberman revealed last October in their Education Next report in their report, the progress among top-performing students often stagnates once they are in gifted-and-talented classes. The low quality of teaching and curricula is not only endemic in classes for kids considered too black, too Latino, too poor (and thus, in the minds of those who serve as gatekeepers to gifted and talented courses) too incapable of taking what are supposed to be rigorous courses even in districts in which they make up the majority of enrollment, it is likely to be a problem for students who get into them. After all, those courses aren’t necessarily cordon solitaires from the systemic problems within K-12 education.
The reality, contrary to what Hess and Petrilli want to argue, is that American public education is serving all children poorly. More importantly, it serves children struggling with reading and other achievement gaps — especially kids from poor and minority households — abysmally. The solution doesn’t lie with indulging notions that only the “ablest kids” are the only ones that deserve high-quality teaching and curricula that are no better than the Poverty myth-making of education traditionalists. It lies in reforming, or, as I note in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, casting aside America’s Model T systems of education so that every child gets the schooling they deserve.
It is unfortunate that your editor has to remind Hess and Petrilli — otherwise thoughtful reformers who should actually be working harder with grassroots activists on fiercely overhauling American public education than engaging in trite Beltway chatter-boxing — of this one more time.