Author: RiShawn Biddle

Dear Rick Hess: There is Nothing Wrong with “Achievement Gap Mania”

When your Dropout Nation editor has been brought low by that horrible viral-based disease called Influenza, it not only forces him to spend days sleeping in bed (when not coughing…

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

When your Dropout Nation editor has been brought low by that horrible viral-based disease called Influenza, it not only forces him to spend days sleeping in bed (when not coughing and other disgusting aspects of being sick), but limits him to reading a lot of really smart people writing and saying dumb things. And if you have been reading this publication long enough, there are few things that displease me more than smart people — especially Beltway school reformers — uttering statements that shouldn’t even come from their minds, much less their pens.

So when the Thomas B. Fordham indulged in its obsession over the academic performance of high-achieving students with the latest report it released this week, I expected to chastise them mercilessly. For all of the admirable work Fordham does on school reform issues, it has this weird penchant of thinking that the only kids that seem to matter most are the ones in advanced classes. And I say this as someone who was one of those high-flying students. But save for its grand opening paragraph declaring that the nation needs to “maximize” the abilities of its smartest students, a finale that declares that our future leaders will come from top-performing students (a gross overstatement that fails to remember that many of our leading lights in business and public light, including Abraham Lincoln and Paul Orfalea, the founder of what is now Fedex Office, either didn’t attend school or were the “C” students in class) and and Fordham staffer Janie Scull’s post on Fordham’s Flypaper blog, the report was actually relatively balanced.

But then, I read American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess’ remarks about the study and the bold (in his mind) declaration that it is evidence of an “achievement gap mania” that has siphoned research, policymaking and funding away from addressing other educational issues, and “has pushed all other considerations to the periphery”. Apparently, Hess ignores the decade of research on other issues — from the expansion of school choice, to teacher quality reform efforts, to even the work on the academic prospects of high-achieving students being conducted by Fordham and other outfits — as well as the focus of state and federal policymaking on such matters as bullying and using schools to combat childhood obesity. The very fact that Hess makes such a gross overstatement renders his entire argument useless. For a Beltway reformer, an everyday observer of all that is happening on Capitol Hill, to even say this is just silly on its face.

The more-problematic aspect of Hess’ argument lies with his view (which he expresses both at Flypaper and in a piece appearing today in National Affairs) is that the achievement gap is a matter not worthy of addressing. This sort of backward thinking echo back to the days before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, when education policymakers and practitioners preferred to ignore the racialist policies that often made American public education a way-station to poverty and prison for poor and minority children. Hess fails to consider that the problem lies not with the focus on closing the achievement gap, but on decades of practices in American public education — from near-lifetime employment and the lack of rigorous evaluation of teachers, to the gamesmanship on academic standards that have been happening long before No Child, to even ability-tracking — that have poorly served all children (including those scoring the highest on test scores).

Hess also attempts to argue that the focus on the achievement gap has “shortchanged many children”. But he can’t prove that in any compelling way. What can be proved is this: American public education does an abysmal job of educating all children.

As the Fordham study notes — and as recent studies from such groups as the Education Trust have shown — wealthy suburban schools are often as abysmal in improving student achievement over time as urban failure mills, while even supposedly high-achieving districts don’t do well in addressing racial and gender achievement gaps. This shouldn’t be shocking. Three decades of student performance on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS has proven, our top-performing students have long been falling behind their peers around the world reading, math and science as their counterparts in other countries. As evidenced in Harvard’s analysis of 2009 PISA data, our top-performing students are outscored by top-performers in 22 other countries; top-performing white students are outperformed by students in 16 nations.

Here’s the thing: When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by American public education — including for young black, white and Latino men — we are improving education for our high-performing students as well. Providing all children with a rigorous, college-preparatory education, and ensuring that all kids are taught by high-quality teachers will not only help struggling students, it will even help high-performers who are just as often not getting the best they (and all children) deserve. More importantly, by addressing achievement gaps, we are also addressing the underlying problems that have made the nation’s education crisis a threat to our immediate- and long-term economic well-being. When we address the low graduation rates and underlying literacy issues facing young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds, we are also helping high-performing young women of all races and economic backgrounds succeed.

The benefits of closing these achievement gaps (as well as ending the penchant among school districts for preventing families from entering their kids into rigorous courses) can be measured. If just a third of the 3,110 residents living in poverty in the South Ozone Park neighborhood of New York City in which I grew up had attended college for at least two years, they would triple their income and contribute at least an additional $20 million a year in income to their neighborhoods (and more if they reach the nation’s median annual income). The benefits not only come in the form of higher incomes, but in spurring economic and social growth that feeds into our nation. And this is not just true for South Ozone Park, but for America as a whole. In a country in which blacks and Latinos will make up the majority of all Americans by mid-century, ignoring the achievement gap is tantamount to condemning America to the economic abyss.

Hess knows this. But sadly, the fact that he holds this view in spite of the evidence isn’t all that surprising.

These days, Hess seems to be more-obsessed with making “bold” and “contrarian” pronouncements that do little to advance much-needed systemic reform than the rigorous, thoughtful scholarship on education issues that once were his stock and trade. His apparent enthusiasm for the No Child backtrack being offered up by Senate Republicans makes one wonder if Hess has lost his appetite for strong systemic reform. He also seems to have a problem with what he calls “self-styled” reformers who have come on to the scene in recent years, essentially arguing that the likes of Steve Brill and Davis Guggenheim (as well as one would suspect, the editor of this publication) have no business offering an opinion, much less pushing for systemic reform. After all, neither Brill nor Guggenheim (or even other reformers, including those in the Parent Power movement) hold ed school degrees, are ensconced in think tanks, or have spent a day in a classroom — even though it doesn’t take the possession of either credential to know that American public education is in crisis.

In the process, Hess has taken on some of the worst qualities of Diane Ravitch and other education traditionalists, from their general disdain for focusing on improving education for poor and minority kids, to their belief in the myth of expertise — that only those who work in education or have ever taught in schools — have any right to say anything about American public education.

The Rick Hess of such seminal texts as Tough Love for Schools has seemingly disappeared into the ether. What is left makes a flu-suffering person like yours truly shake his head wondering “can the real Rick Hess please come back?”

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John Kline Fails on Parent Power

When a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing declares that it will focus on “Ensuring the Education System is Accountable to Parents and Communities“, one would expect to see…

Photo courtesy of Rep. John Kline

When a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing declares that it will focus on “Ensuring the Education System is Accountable to Parents and Communities“, one would expect to see a list of witnesses including Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, Matt Prewett of the Texas Parents Union, and even the folks at Black Alliance for Educational Options. But today, the House subcommittee conducting this hearing didn’t include any of these advocates for making parents the lead decision-makers in education. Shameful. The committee and its chairman, John Kline, have missed an opportunity to make Parent Power efforts — including Parent Trigger laws already passed in three states — a critical element of federal education policy, and actually spur systemic reform.

Given that the hearing also focused on Kline’s obsession with gutting the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (and his equally wrongheaded opposition to Common Core standards), it isn’t surprising that the subcommittee holding the hearing invited fellow-travelers such as otherwise admirable University of Arkansas scholar Jay P. Greene. But somehow, for some reason, Kline and subcommittee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), failed to invite any of the leading lights of the growing Parent Power movement, and, in the process, made the hearing rather incomplete.

After all, as Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times points out in his column today, the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law has already begun making an impact, forcing school districts to pay attention to the demands of families — especially those from poor and minority communities — for high-quality teaching and curricula. In the process, these laws, along with school voucher plans, inter-district school choice efforts such as that being pursued in Michigan by Gov. Rick Snyder, and charter schools, give parents and caregivers real voice in shaping the educational destinies of the children they love. Given that Parent Power activists are also among the leading players among the new, emerging civil rights activists replacing the old-school NAACP crowd — along with the rhetoric of Kline and company about making education a truly local concern — Parent Trigger laws are key in expanding the ability of parents to improve schools in their own communities. And as revealed last month by Dropout Nation, the very existence of Parent Power groups have also proven to be a threat taken seriously by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association; any reform effort considered a real threat by education traditionalists is one to which a congressional committee should pay attention.

The good news is that Bill Jackson of GreatSchools.org did mention the efforts of the Connecticut Parents Union. But that isn’t enough. By ignoring these activists, Kline, Hunter and their fellow congressional Republicans on the committee have ignored an area in which federal education policy can help encourage and expand. No Child’s school choice provisions, which required school districts to allow students in failing schools to move to better-performing operations, may have not been implemented well by districts which often had no high-performing schools to send those kids to them (and didn’t want to actually comply with that aspect of the law in the first place). But the provision, along with the federal Race to the Top initiative, has served as a catalyst for pushing states into passing school choice laws and expanding the reach of charter schools. This time around, Kline could have used the hearing as the opportunity to force Senate counterpart Tom Harkin and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the table on crafting a new No Child that would require states and districts to implement Parent Trigger laws. This could take place either in the petition format embraced in California or the slightly less-powerful version found in Connecticut. But Parent Power should be a part of those conversations.

Once again, Kline and his gang have proven to be less than serious when it comes to federal education policy. Luckily for families, the Parent Power movement will grow long before congressional Republicans finally give it serious consideration.

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