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January 4, 2012 standard

Never let data get in the way of spreading the fiction that focusing on stemming achievement gaps hurts top-performing students. That’s what American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess tried to do (with the help of Mike Petrilli, his counterpart at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) last month in the Washington Post, leading Dropout Nation to Ginzu-knife their argument (as it did Hess’ previous declarations). And now, Sol Stern, the Manhattan Institute education scholar who now spends more time criticizing Michael Bloomberg’s school reform efforts than offering anything thoughtful, attempts to do the same in the pages of City Journal.

Bemoaning the low levels of native American students receiving degrees in engineering, math, science and other fields, he proclaims that the cause of this problem lies with the No Child Left Behind Act and the focus on stemming racial, ethnic, and economic achievement gaps. As far as Stern is concerned, No Child has led to “the corruption of educational standards”, forces districts to focus solely on addressing achievement gaps at the expense of helping top-performing students, and has made the nation less competitive in the global economy.

Stern hardly offers anything in the way of data. Instead what he offers anecdotes, or the intellectual equivalent of eyewitness testimony (empirically unreliable), from those who share his view such as Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation to make his point. (For good measure, Stern quotes Petrilli too.) For such shoddiness alone, Stern ought to be sent back to City College for remedial courses in rhetoric and debate. The fact that Stern ignores the abysmal practices of how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers (which contributes to the inability of the nation’s teaching corps to provide high-quality instruction to all students regardless of initial ability) also makes his entire argument incredible. The unwillingness to realize that not every top-performing student would want to be an engineer or a scientist in the first place — and may choose their own path — doesn’t factor into his thinking. Add in three decades of data from international tests such as PISA and TIMSS that have shown the low performance of American students regardless of ability (along with four decades of criticism over the low quality of reading and math curricula) and suddenly, Stern’s argument breaks apart like the cheapest ceramic-ware falling on soft carpet.

But as Hess has consistently done, Stern ignores the reality that top-performing students have benefited greatly from No Child, along with its focus on holding states and districts accountable for improving achievement of all students regardless of who they are.  And the most-objective evidence of this comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

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 fourth-graders (those in the 90th percentile) 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 one point between 2002 and 2011 (to 264). When it comes to math, top-performing fourth-graders (along with other peers) still continued their progress. Between 1996 and 2002, average math scores for top-performing fourth-graders 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 fourth-graders 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.

When one breaks this down by race and ethnicity, the gains are tremendous. The percentage of black fourth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading increased from 14 percent to 19 percent between 2002 and 2011; that’s greater than the three percentage point increase (from 11 percent to 13 percent) over that period. The average black student in the 90th percentile increased their average scores by five points (from 242 to 247) in that period of time, a faster clip than between 1998 and 2002; while the average score for a black student in the 75th percentile increased by six points between 2002 and 2011 (from 223 to 229), faster than the five percent increase between 1998 and 2002.

Meanwhile the percentage of Latino fourth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels increased from 17 percent to 21 percent between 2001 and 2011, a greater level of gains than between 1998 and 2007 (from 15 percent to 17 percent). The score for the average Latino fourth-grader in the 90th percentile increased by three points (from 246 to 249) between 2002 and 2011, the same rate as the period between 1998 and 2002; average scale score for a Latino student in the 75th percentile increased by five points between 2002 and 2011 (from 226 to 231), the same level of growth as that between 1998 and 2002.

This strong growth for top-performing students is also borne out when looking at eighth-graders. Between 1998 and 2002, the average reading scale score for students in the 90th percentile actually declined (from 306 points to 305), while . But from 2002 to 2011, the average scale score for those students increased by two points, from 305 to 307. This level of growth is also borne out for students in the 75th percentile. In math, the average score for students in the 90th percentile increased by six points (from 323 to 329) between 2003 and 2011, staying on pace with the seven point increase between 1996 and 2003; for students in the 75th percentile, the average score increased by six points (from 303 points to 309 points) between 2003 and 2011, the same rate of growth as in the period between 1996 and 2003.

The percentage of eighth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading increased by one percent (from 36 percent to 37 percent) between 2002 and 2011, the same level of increase as in the period between 1998 and 2011. In math, however, the growth was tremendous. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of eighth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels in math increased by 8 percentage points, from 35 percent to 43 percent; that’s higher than the seven percentage point increase in eighth-graders reaching those levels between 1996 and 2003. (Dropout Nation‘s analysis, by the way, has been borne out by Fordham’s recent report on accountability.)

In essence, contrary to Stern’s contention, No Child has hardly damaged the nation’s competitiveness. If anything, it has been a critical first step in actually transforming American public education. One could actually say that No Child may have actually helped spur reforms in areas such as curricula and teacher quality that have led to more students become top performers. (No Child has also exposed the very gamesmanship on curriculum standards that Stern rightly bemoans, something that has been happening long before its passage.)

Meanwhile Stern clings to a rather romantic ideal of simply focusing on top-performing students that ignores important realities.

The first? That it is unlikely that gifted and talented programs have ever done a great job in the first place. 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. Given that districts are just beginning to evaluate teachers based on test scores and other objective measures of student achievement, there is no way that one can guarantee that a teacher handling gifted and talented classes can actually do the job.

The second? That attempting to determine who is gifted and talented — especially through IQ tests — doesn’t work out because the labile nature of cognitive abilities. As University of Iowa psychologist David Lohman’ has pointed out, only 25 percent of four year-olds scoring 130 on the Stanford-Binet test used by many schools and districts to determine cognitive ability will do so as 17-year-olds; most first-graders considered gifted don’t remain in such status by the time they reach third grade.Lohman and Katrina Korb (now of the University of Jos in Nigeria) also pointed out in a 2006 report that just 45 percent of first-graders who scored higher than 130 points on Stanford-Binet would have scored at that level on other IQ exams.

Certainly this shouldn’t be a surprise given that cognitive ability is dynamic, as much influenced by the quality of learning environment (especially in school) as it is on natural growth over time. The fact that talent is as much forged by challenge (academically and otherwise) as it is by any innate ability is also part of the reason; after all, it explains why so many once-struggling students such as Fedex Office founder Paul Orfalea (a dyslexic) can turn out to be more successful in the outside world than the A-students who did well in the classroom.

This fact leads to the third reality: How we select who is “gifted and talented” is often based on a gatekeeper system that isn’t based on any objective evidence such as test score growth on standardized tests over time. As former National Math and Science Initiative president Tom Luce noted earlier this year, even with the growth in students taking A.P. courses, far too many black and Latino students are shied away from them. This happens despite the fact that A.P. participation increases their likelihood of kids graduating from high school and completing college. In Atlanta, for example, just 7 percent of black students were taking AP courses during the 2005-2006 school year, while 31 percent of their white high school peers took those courses. As with gifted-and-talented programs in the early grades, poor and minority kids are often denied these opportunities, forcing those parents who are aware of them to fight hard against district bureaucracies that insist that only some kids can learn. This gate-keeping problem is especially troublesome given those who are in charge of making these decisions — including teachers and guidance counselors overseeing gifted and talented programs — often don’t have the subject-matter competency to do so in the first place (and that districts don’t do the kind of objective evaluations needed to make such determinations).

Fourth: The entire concept of gifted and talented that Stern defends is hardly meritorious. Given how we select those students to be put into such programs (save for Stern’s alma mater of Stuyvesant and other schools that base admissions on entrance test scores), it is hardly a meritorious exercise. In fact, as with the comprehensive high school and ability tracking, gifted and talented programs are pernicious legacies of a philosophy dating back to the Progressive Era of the last century, when another generation of educators declared that only some kids (namely white middle class children of that era) were capable of mastering — and thus deserving of — a rigorous high-quality education. This rationing of education (and the underlying bigotries and racialism behind it) is one of the biggest culprits for the nation’s education crisis. It has led to practices that have denied high-quality education to poor and minority children — especially those who are top-performing students — while still providing low-quality instruction and curricula to those students who are considered top-performing (even as its supporters think otherwise).

And finally, given that all children will one day become adults in an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which what one does with their mind will be more important than what they do with their hands, it is critical to provide high-quality teaching and curricula to all children. In an age in which marketers must also be savvy with statistics, and high-paying blue-collar fields such as elevator installers need to be skilled in civil, structural, and electrical engineering, rigorous college-preparatory instruction and high-quality teaching is a necessity for all children — and not just those Stern (wrongly) considers to be the talented tenth.

It is time for Stern and for his fellow-travelers (including Hess) to stop advocating for a failed practice with which no school reformer should be associated. Instead, it is time to provide all children with the high-quality teaching and rigorous college preparatory curricula they need for lifelong success. This can be done while still accommodating both those kids struggling with literacy and numeracy and those kids performing ahead of their current grade. As I mentioned last month, one way to do that is by allowing top-performing students to move up a grade even during the school year so that they can continue to be challenged academically; blended learning programs such as New York’s School of One effort have already shown the effectiveness of such an approach.

Doing this, along with other systemic reforms, would improve the likelihood of all children, regardless of ability, getting the knowledge they need so they can succeed in any form of higher education (be it traditional college, technical school, or apprenticeship) and, ultimately, choose any pathway to economic and social success. Which, in turn, will provide our economy with talented citizens needed to help America remain competitive in the global knowledge-based economy.

*Editor’s Note: The original headline on the piece was amended in order to focus more on the arguments being made by Mr. Stern and by yours’ truly.

December 19, 2011 standard

 

Last week’s critique of Rick Hess’ and Mike Petrilli’s Washington Post piece decrying “achievement gap mania” and its alleged impacts on top-performing students certainly garnered some responses. Many agreed with my arguments, while others accused me of being irresponsible for possibly suggesting (although I haven’t done so) that there are no trade-offs for focusing on improving education for at-risk students (including those who actually may be deserving of being called “gifted and talented”, but are struggling with literacy) over those Hess and Petrilli considered to be the “ablest”.

This isn’t shocking. After all, one of the problems in the battle over reforming American public education is that both education traditionalists and many reformers take a deficit approach to solving the nation’s education crisis, arguing that focusing on one solution is feasible. This thinking, based in part on a misinterpretation of economic and political theories, is off-target because the nation’s education crisis is so complex that the overhaul will require myriad solutions. Certainly one can’t provide the same level of resources to all solutions. But, as I pointed out in last week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, solving the crisis must be done in a holistic way that recognizes the interconnectedness of both problems and solutions.

Focusing on stemming achievement gaps is the most-sensible way addressing the crisis. Why, for one, it is the approach that will lead to the proverbial tide that raises all boats, especially since the problems of low-quality instruction and curricula are not limited to the millions of children — including the 33 percent of fourth-graders — who are likely to drop out in the next eight years. As I pointed out last week, even students who are doing well in school are denied all that they need for their success. Rationing high-quality education and damning some kids to low expectations, as Hess and Petrilli, are suggesting, just won’t work.

The reality is that we already ration education and, in the process, damn poor and minority kids with low expectations. This can be seen in one example Hess and Petrilli cite in their piece: That just 14 percent of teachers instructing Advanced Placement courses felt that the 60 percent growth in students taking the test between 2003 and 2008 stemmed from talented students able to do the work. As Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress points out in a response to Petrilli and Hess, passing rates declined by just four percent even as more students took A.P. courses. Given that there has been no steep drop in passing rates, it is actually likely that these kids were quite capable of doing the work “despite what their teachers seem to think.”

Boser’s point hits upon the reality that the ability of kids to get the rigorous, college-preparatory curricula they often depends on they are perceived by the teachers and guidance counselors who serve as gatekeepers for such programs (along with the  relationships their parents have with the gatekeepers). As a result, far too many kids — especially kids who never get the chance to exercise their academic potential.

As former National Math and Science Initiative president Tom Luce noted earlier this year, even with the growth in students taking A.P. courses, far too many black and Latino students are shied away from them. This happens despite the fact that A.P. participation increases their likelihood of kids graduating from high school and completing college. In Atlanta, for example, just 7 percent of black students were taking AP courses during the 2005-2006 school year, while 31 percent of their white high school peers took those courses. In Loudoun County, Virginia, a mere 14 percent of black students took AP courses, versus 31 percent of their white peers. As with gifted-and-talented programs in the early grades, poor and minority kids are often denied these opportunities, forcing those parents who are aware of them to fight hard against district bureaucracies that insist that only some kids can learn.

This gatekeeper problem is especially pernicious given that we really don’t know if a five-year-old “gifted and talented” student would actually qualify as being gifted and talented down the road — or even at that period of time, depending on the test. This can be seen in the efforts by parents to prep their kids for IQ tests used for admission by some private schools for their own gifted-and-talented programs. As University of Iowa psychologist David Lohman and Katrina Korb (now of the University of Jos in Nigeria) pointed out in a 2006 report, just 45 percent of first-graders who scored higher than 130 points on the Stanford-Binet test used by many to determine cognitive ability would have scored at that level on other IQ exams; most first-graders considered gifted in first grade don’t keep that label two years later. And, according to Lohman, only 25 percent of four year-olds scoring 130 on the Stanford-Binet will do so as 17-year-olds.

The fact that cognitive ability is dynamic and not a constant is certainly one reason why so many students labeled “gifted and talented” don’t necessarily stay that way. Especially for children in the preschool and early elementary grade levels, cognitive ability is as much influenced by the quality of learning environment (especially in school) as it is on natural growth over time. The fact that talent is as much forged by challenge (academically and otherwise) as it is by any innate ability is also part of the reason; after all, it explains why so many once-struggling students such as Fedex Office founder Paul Orfalea (a dyslexic) turn out to be successful (one would say, far more more successful) than the A-students who did well in the classroom. Ultimately, it is far more important to provide all children with high-quality education and help all of them address their particular learning needs — from reading remediation to providing them with additional outside learning opportunities — than to segment and label based on labile abilities.

But in any case, the fact that so many students considered top-performing in the early grades don’t stay that way leads to these three conclusions.

The first: That gifted-and-talented courses are not even close to the high quality that Hess and Petrilli proclaim them to be. The study conducted by the Northwest Evaluation Association on behalf of Fordham hints to that possibility; while the recent study co-authored by Sai Bui, Steven Craig and Scott Imberman this past October in Education Next report clearly points to that fact. Considering that most school districts aren’t using Value-Added analysis of student test data in evaluating teachers and identifying their most-talented instructors, there is no way that gifted and talented programs can be cordons solitaire from the low quality of teaching and curricula endemic throughout American public education. And, as the Jack Kent Cook Foundation pointed out in its 2007 report, this state of affairs is especially true in massive urban, suburban, and rural dropout factories.

The second: If we are going to continue the existence of gifted and talented regimens (outside of those of specialized high schools such as New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, which solely use test score results and grades for selecting pupils), there shouldn’t be any gatekeeping over them. The wide swings in the cognitive development of those who would actually be considered “ablest”, along with their own subjective biases, renders the judgement of teachers and guidance counselors too unreliable for the gate-keeping role. Instead, parents should either be able to place their kids into the programs and let the children sink-or-swim based on their performance, or admit students into gifted-and-talented courses based on test score growth over time.

And finally, it’s time to toss the concept of gifted and talented into history’s ashbin. The continued existence of this program, along with special education ghettos, perpetuate one of the underlying culprits of the nation’s education crisis: Ability tracking, or the concept of rationing high-quality teaching and college preparatory curricula based on racialist and condescending early-20th century views that only some kids (namely those from white middle-class households) are capable of mastery. More importantly, they have proven to be ineffective in helping those identified as gifted stay that way over time.

What should be done instead is to provide all children with the high-quality teaching and rigorous college preparatory curricula they need for lifelong success. Doing so still allows for providing intensive reading remediation to those kids struggling in literacy and numeracy, and helping those already performing ahead of their current grade attain the challenging teaching and curricula they need to build mastery. This starts by moving away from the traditional approach of keeping kids in the same grade for a full school year, even when they have proven able to move forward into the next grade. The New York City Department of Education’s School of One initiative has already shown the benefits of allowing kids to move on to the next grade so they can get the challenging curricula they need to build mastery.

Another step lies with expanding school choice. As I note in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, expanding school options allows families to actively shape their children’s learning, expanding learning opportunities for all kids regardless of who they are or where they may live. Enacting Common Core state standards in reading and math, along with improving on those standards and building high-quality curricula around them is also critical to this approach. And finally, we must continue to overhaul how we recruit, train, evaluate, and reward teachers. That last step will allow for all kids, regardless of their talent level, to get the high-quality teaching they need for lifelong success.

It is time to move away from deficit thinking on solving the education crisis and recognize the fact that improving teaching and curricula for the students most ill-served by failed traditional public schools practices will also those students who are only slightly-better served by them. It’s not just about at-risk students or top-performing kids. It is about providing all of them the schooling they deserve.

December 16, 2011 standard

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.

November 6, 2011 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, a Webinar I conducted for Students For Education Reform leads me to offer some important reasons why now, more than ever, we must focus on stemming achievement gaps. Contrary to what some may think, we must  address the gaps of literacy, opportunity, teacher quality, and practices that has condemned 1.2 million sixth graders alone (and, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, millions more) to the educational, economic, and social abyss.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

October 21, 2011 standard

One-point-two million fourth-graders in 2009 – 33 percent of the nation’s students in that grade that year — were likely functionally illiterate. They were not reading at grade level, were struggling in other subjects that depend on reading such as math. And they are unlikely to ever graduate from high school eight years later. Another 948,193 students were likely reading at just basic levels; while they weren’t struggling as mightily as their functionally illiterate peers, they are barely at the academic Mendoza line, barely getting by.

Depending on their racial or ethnic background, whether their families are poor or wealthy, the zip code in which they lived at the time, or even if they are a boy or a girl, there are a lot of American fourth-graders who are not getting the education they need for success in school in life. Altogether, the majority of the nation’s fourth-graders were — and two years later — still are either on the path to dropping out or just graduating with a high school diploma in an age in which some form of higher education is necessary for attaining high-paying jobs as lawyers, accountants, elevator installers, and welders. Those who manage to find high-quality teachers (or, if they are in one of the few parts of the nation in which they can seek out high-quality alternatives to mediocre and failing traditional public schools) may be able to escape this path to economic and social despair. But for most of these kids — and for the millions of children in other grades — this is not likely at all.

These reality is why there is nothing wrong with what Rick Hess and others has deemed “achievement gap mania”. If anything, we need more of it than ever.

As Dropout Nation readers know by now, Hess has prompted a heated month-long discussion about whether school reformers should continue their focus on stemming achievement gaps as part of systemically reforming American public education. While Hess has certainly had some folks defending his positions, more evidence and commentary clearly shows that Hess’ argument is off-base. George W. Bush Institute scholar Matthew Ladner challenges much of Hess’ argument yesterday in his own analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2003 and 2009 exams.

As I’ve said in previous pieces, 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. Nor has he proven that the focus of reformers on stemming those gaps have has starved other topics of policymaking and philanthropic resources. As someone who has worked in — and with — a number of education-focused organizations, I can easily attest that there is just as much focus on such matters as school nutrition and bullying as on the problems of at-risk children.

But the biggest problem with Hess’ argument is this underlying assumption: That the problem of achievement gaps are limited only to poor kids of minority backgrounds attending schools in urban cities. This isn’t even close to reality. The fact that out of every four fourth-graders in a suburban school read Below Basic proficiency all but proves lie to assumptions of the contrary. The experiences of middle class black and Latino families in suburbia, who, along with white middle-class households whose kids suffer from autism, must often fight with principals and teachers to get their kids high-quality instruction and curricula, also attests to this fact. And don’t forget,  districts in rural communities — including areas of states perceived to be mostly-urban such as California and New York — account for one out of every five of the nation’s dropout factories.

Then there are the achievement gaps between young men and their female peers, which defy the perception of the achievement gap as just a race and economic problem. Just 66 percent of all young male high school freshmen graduate four years later versus 73 percent of their female peers. Forty-one percent of Asian fourth-grade boys eligible for free-or-reduced lunch were functionally illiterate vs. only 29 percent of their female peers; meanwhile 33 percent of young Latino male high school seniors from college-educated households read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, versus 24 percent of their sisters. Simply put, our schools condemn far too many illiterate young men to special education ghettos, suspend far too many young men — generally at twice the rate of their female peers — and put them on the path to dropping out.

Hess’ argument ignores the reality that, for the most part, American public education serves up mediocrity to many of the kids it serves — and abject malpractice to its poorest children, to black and Latino kids regardless of their levels of wealth, to children in foster care, and to the young men and women its teachers and administrators relegate to the academic ghettos of special education. This week, University of Houston researchers Sai Bui, Steven Craig and Scott Imberman offered one more example in their Education Next report on lack of progress among top-performing students attending 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.

What Hess has proven are these undeniable facts: That our nation’s ed schools fail miserably in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. That school leadership generally remains more ideal than reality at nearly all levels of our districts. That there are folks in education who aren’t innovative in their use of curricula, instruction, or information (and lack sophistication in using data). That the lack of strong performance management and evaluation (along with tenure laws and seniority privileges that protect laggard teachers at the expense of children) have helped foster dysfunctional cultures in which there are no incentives to embrace new approaches to helping kids succeed. And that all our kids, regardless of who they are or where they come from, are not getting the instruction, curricula, and school cultures worthy of them.

Hess is right that the conversation about achievement gaps tends to be far too focused on the abject failures of big-city districts — and has allowed education traditionalists in suburbia to argue against reform. As Dropout Nation has consistently shown since its founding, the systemic problems within American public education that help foster and exacerbate achievement gaps extend beyond Detroit, Indianapolis and Los Angeles Unified. Reformers need to consistently remind Americans that the achievement gap is not just a problem of poor kids in the ‘hood.

But the solution isn’t to move away from focusing on stemming achievement gaps. In fact, it is impossible to solve the nation’s education crisis without it.

As a matter of simple mathematics, doing so makes sense. Young men make up three out of every five high school students who drop out every hour of every day; they also make up more than half of all students. Black and Latino students make up the majority of enrollment in western and southern states, the regions which account for 57 percent of the nation’s student population.

The achievement gap focus is also fiscally sensible. One of the biggest problems in American public education is that we spend $594 billion without any strategic focus whatsoever. We continually fund a system that, as Hess himself pointed out earlier this week at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s confab on student achievement, wasn’t built to provide them with high-quality learning. Even the No Child Left Behind Act’s laudable goal of forcing states and districts to focus on improving the achievement of poor and minority kids only touches a smattering of the dollars spent. Far more children would be helped if most of the $63 billion spent wastefully on school construction was focused instead on intensive reading remediation and expanding school choice.

As Ladner rightly pointed out yesterday, focusing on achievement gaps as a strategy for systemic reform is also absolutely and fundamentally the American thing to do. As a nation, we believe in providing all children with an equal opportunity to get the education they need so they can choose their own economic and social destinies. When the chances of a child getting high-quality instruction is as haphazard now as it was when my grandmother was attending school during the Great Depression, it insults the very idea of our nation as the shining city upon the hill. And we cannot compete in an increasingly global economy when one-third of our citizens can’t read while another quarter barely comprehend what’s written in The Huffington Post.

Finally, it is our moral and civic obligation. Whether you are a Methodist, a Humanist, a Buddhist, or a Benjamin Franklin-styled Deist, we should all be outraged that our tax dollars sustain a system in which 1.2 million children a year are condemned to poverty and system before they even have a chance to determine their own paths in life.  We should work furiously, unapologetically, to ensure that every child to have a good-to-great school at the center of their lives — and should shame anyone who defends practices that keep this from happening.

The solution isn’t to stop focusing on achievement gaps, but to expand that conversation, explaining how helping our kids served the least by American public education also helps all children and their families. You know, self interest. All children are helped when we overhaul how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, and when we replace laggard instructors with dedicated, high-quality teachers. Every child, be they in Detroit or in Grosse Pointe, benefits from high-quality school choices. And the fewer dropouts on the unemployment line, the more money will go into the pockets of those of us who pay nearly half of the nation’s taxes (and shoulder the burdens of a welfare state).

Such an expansive conversation would do more further school reform than a misguided misinterpretation of problems stemming from the nation’s education crisis.

September 27, 2011 standard

Apparently, Rick Hess doesn’t like being called a contrarian. That’s what one surmises from the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s response to last week’s Dropout Nation commentary about his pieces on “achievement gap mania.” From where Hess sits, your editor somehow misinterpreted his position on what he considers the nation’s unhealthy effort to overhaul education for all children, even though I pulled quotes from his own pieces saying so. Hess can disagree with my ultimate summation of his thoughts all he wants, but it stands and that’s that. After all, he did write a piece dedicated to arguing that the idea that a focus on stemming the achievement gaps of poor and minority children (as well as young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds) is a bad public policy idea.

Funny thing is that Hess didn’t offer up much of a defense of his underlying argument: That the focus on stemming achievement gaps has sapped time, money and political resources from addressing other educational concerns (and causing the performance of even top-flight students to decline). Probably because that argument was based on a series of specious evidence that didn’t prove anything. After all, in the decade since the achievement gap became a national mania, policymakers have managed to focus their energies on anti-bullying legislation, childhood obesity (including federal rules requiring schools to start victory gardens as part of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act), and the expansion of school choice. It hasn’t consumed “the whole of our attention” as Hess declares.  Same is true for philanthropies, which have also poured dollars into teacher quality reform initiatives, character education efforts, and family engagement and Parent Power activities. While the latter has garnered the fewest resources that has less to do with the available pots of money than with the reality that donors are more comfortable conversing with Hess and other think tankers over goat cheese hors d’oeuvres than dealing with the messiness of working the grassroots. And given that all American students, including those at the top of their game, have been struggling against their peers internationally for at least three decades, would be off-base in blaming the focus on stemming achievement gaps for these issues.

Contrary to what Hess (and others such as the otherwise estimable Jay P. Greene and the generally one-note Robert Pondiscio) may think, the focus on stemming achievement gaps has not been exacerbated the nation’s education crisis. If anything, as folks such as No Child Left Behind Act mastermind Sandy Kress have pointed out (and Mike Petrilli has admitted), the focus on achievement gaps has helped push the very systemic reforms — from subjecting teachers to private sector-style performance management, to the expansion of school choice — Hess and other reformers desire. It has also yielded some success especially in improving overall student achievement. Certainly, none of these reforms are silver bullets on their own. Nor does one set of instructional method for on. But these efforts, along with others such as blended learning, are creating opportunities for spurring the systemic reforms needed to help all children — from young men struggling with reading at every economic and racial category, to those with stronger learning backgrounds — succeed in school and life.

Hess attempts to blame the focus on stemming achievement gaps for the lack of strong development of instructional techniques that can work for both struggling and more-advanced students. It doesn’t work. What he calls a bitter fruit of “achievement gap mania” is really a problem emanating from the talent and sophistication problems endemic within American public education itself. As Hess himself noted when discussing the spates of cheating in Atlanta, and as Dropout Nation pointed out this month in its commentary on the use of school data, the low quality of teacher and principal training has resulted in the proliferation of school staffers who do plenty badly. And we end up with other players in education who misread the problems instead of realizing that you have teachers and principals on the ground not trained well enough to use any tool — from instructional methods to data — properly in helping students succeed. As Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli made that mistake with data, same is true for Hess when it comes to the focus on stemming achievement gaps.

Again, Hess has a thesis that isn’t worth defending. It deserves to be put into the trash with ability tracking and the Poverty Myth of Education Diane Ravitch and Ruby Payne peddle for profit and prominence. What is particularly amazing is that Hess then goes on to proclaim that the new voices articulating for reform are risking the success of the movement by transforming solutions into dogmatic and “stifling orthodoxies.” Again, he can’t offer any real strong examples from anyone of note (including yours truly; after all, I am as much willing to challenge reformers for faulty thinking as I do education traditionalists). Instead, he offers up a blanket statement about Steve Brill and his new book, Class Warfare, and Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for “Superman”.

One wonders if Hess is reading and seeing what he wants to believe in both the case of Class Warfare and Superman. As Andy Rotherham points out in his review of the book, it is far more nuanced about the problems in education — including how to improve teacher quality — than dogmatic. If anything, Brill’s book hardly offers dogma, but solid reporting that offers a complex picture of both reformers and education traditionalists. Same with Superman, which acknowledged that charter schools weren’t the sole answer, and that teachers’ unions aren’t the only obstacles to systemic reform. And, contrary, to what Hess argues, few of the new voices coming into school reform are all dogmatic. A woman like Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, for example, is probably far more open to new solutions than many longtime reformers; the same is true for her counterparts.

Meanwhile Hess, like a number of Beltway reformers, is obtuse about the concept of filmmaking and writing for the public. For books that are meant to be read be the average person (you know, the folks who will never read the 100-page policy studies Hess writes for living, and I put together when I’m not writing for average people), a book has to offer this thing called a narrative, in which there is a struggle between opposing forces that disagree on critical matters; there also have to be these people called characters and protagonists, who are engaged in that struggle. Meanwhile filmmaking is a form of communication in which images are more-important than turns of phrase. This means scenes of unemployment lines in rural South Carolina, images of teachers working heroically in charter schools, and even a menacing sound bite from Randi Weingarten in front of a black background.

A cinematic version of AEI panel discussions, lovely as they are (and as much as I, a policy geek, enjoys them) will not grab any public attention. And, as I said last year about Hess’ wrongheaded criticism of Superman, school reformers have to realize that you will need more voices, more Brills and more Guggenheims (along with others in the creative fields) in order to rally strong support for reform from the public. Up to now, the movement has succeeded in spite of itself; save for folks such as Steve Barr of Green Dot and others working in communities, they have done a poor job of rallying both urban families (who have flocked to reform in spite of that deficit) as well as suburban communities whose schools are more mediocre than they realize. Instead of criticizing these voices for using their tools for advocacy as they are supposed to (because those forms demand it), reformers should embrace them, learn more about these formats, and use them for their own efforts.

Some may argue I have been too hard on Hess. And perhaps, I have. But he’s a grown up and he can take it the same way I do each day. While I certainly admire Hess’ work and his thoughts on reforming American public education, I also think that his views on both the achievement gap and new voices in education are off-target. More importantly, in criticizing Hess and other reformers, Dropout Nation is fulfilling its mission. This publication not only exists to push for a revolution in American public education that helps all children succeed in school and life, and to speak truth to educational traditionalists who hold influence and power. It is also to constantly remind reformers, especially Hess, that they must walk the talk, that they must stand straight and upright for the very children they want to help, and that they must be held as accountable for lapses in thinking as status quo defenders must be for, as school reform donor R. Boykin Curry, would say in his slight overstatement, getting proverbial blood on their hands.

This is not a bloodless exercise, and not a public policy game. Our kids get only one chance every day to get ready for the future – and we only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. This doesn’t mean being dogmatic, but being thoughtful radicals unashamedly, unapologetically pursuing systemic reform for both our kids who get the least and our youngsters blessed with abundance. This means challenging everyone, from Beltway reformers to grassroots activists, the same way voices of conscience from past movements — including the student groups that energized and questioned established groups in the civil rights and conservative movements — to live up to the best within themselves. And that means every reformer must spend time challenging each other as well as the other side.