Should we expect schools to equalize our society?
If you hang around educators enough, you’re likely to hear the following two phrases: “up to standard” and “close gaps in achievement.” As we prepare for a debate over the revision and re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, I think it’s important to discuss the vast difference between these two phrases and what that difference means for our system of education.
“Up to standard” refers to moving a child’s achievement to a point where she can be called proficient in a certain subject area as measured by a standardized test. “Close gaps in achievement,” on the other hand, means there should be little difference between different students’ achievement on those same standardized tests. If most students from high-income backgrounds score highly in a subject, then, low-income students should achieve similar scores.
The practical difference in these two phrases plays out as follows: All of Super Sunshine Elementary School’s 100 third graders might score proficient on the state test, but 50 of them got 95% of the questions right while the other 50 got 75% of the questions right. When the data are analyzed, it turns out that almost all of the higher-scoring students come from high-income households, while almost all of the lower-scoring students come from low-income households. So although all of the students are up to standard, a 20 percentage point gap in achievement exists based on socioeconomic status.
The question is, should schools be charged simply with moving students up to standard, or with closing gaps in achievement for which they are not responsible? In his recent research, Nobel Prize-winning economist and University of Chicago professor James Heckman explains that
Most of the gaps at age 18…are present at age five. Schooling plays a minor role in creating or perpetuating gaps. Even though American children go to very different schools depending on their family background, test scores are remarkably parallel” (p. 12).
Heckman’s argument is that gaps exist at an early age and simply persist. Johns Hopkins University professor Karl Alexander begins with the same fact, that “Statistically, lower income children begin school with lower achievement scores….” However, Alexander’s research shows that the reason gaps in achievement persist and grow is that
During the summer months, disadvantaged children tread water at best or even fall behind. It’s what we call ’summer slide’ or ’summer setback.’ But better off children build their skills steadily over the summer months” (p. 1).
(The bar chart on page 2 shows almost identical school-year gains, while large cumulative summer gains are made only by higher income children.)
In other words, schools may be educating students of all backgrounds in exactly the same way, but factors outside of school can greatly impact test score results that are attributed to schools.
Given the data above, I’d like to hear from you in the poll below. Please leave a comment if you’d like to expound on your poll answer.