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Feb. 3 2010 - 10:23 pm | 82 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

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.

[poll id="3"]


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  1. collapse expand

    I truly believe that a vast majority of the education gap problem between varying socio-economic groups is more about culture than money. Yes, disadvantaged kids do not have the means to go to private summer programs, camps or what have you, but at the end of the day it boils down to a family’s belief in education as a fundamental building block for lifelong achievement. If you take our President and his wife, for example, both of whom come from very modest means, the common denominator is a family who believed in education and a disciplined approach to doing homework. Hard work in, good grades out. Same thing with many immigrant Asian families, who have a very strong work ethic and believe in the power of education.

    To expect schools to overcome cultural norms would require social engineering beyond what we consider to be the scope of today’s public education system. Now, that said, I would wholeheartedly be in favor of putting in free after-school programs at school that allow kids to finish their homework on campus with access to teachers or tutors so they can at least have a supportive environment in which to complete their studies.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.