Bridging the achievement gap: The limits of education reform


The educational achievement gap will not be solved by better teaching, or by firing teachers or bashing unions. Or by vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay for performance, pre-school, all day kindergarten, or simply by a new curriculum. The achievement gap is a matter of race and class that may not be solved by the schools or educators alone. It requires attention to the social economic forces that define the lives of students and which affect their ability to learn.

Addressing the educational achievement gap is the issue de jure. The Minneapolis and St Paul mayors want to be the education mayors. R T Rybek sees his gubernatorial future in talking about the gap, and politicians and educators of all stripes are talking about it. A recent Pew research Center Report entitled The Rising Cost of Not Going to College points to the erosion in the value of a high school degree and the need to get more students of color into college. The gap nationally and in Minnesota is real. Simply stated, while Minnesota has one of the highest graduation rates in the nation, with student standardized test scores second only to Massachusetts, the story is very different for people of color and for the poor. The graduation rate and test scores between whites and students of color in Minnesota is the largest in the country. We are largely failing (in both meanings of the term) students of color–the children who will be the future of this state. This failure also overlaps with poverty, meaning that many poor whites also fit into this category of those victimized by the gap.

So now the question is what to do? Minnesota to a large extent has been an education innovator over time. We were the first to introduce open enrollment, allowing students to cross district lines to attend school. Yet with more than a generation of experimenting with open enrollment, few parents participate in it and there is little data that it has made much difference in outcomes. Minnesota also led the nation in pushing for charter schools, believing somehow that these educational experiments freed from normal rules and bureaucratic constraints–and teachers unions–would be better run by a bunch of educational amateurs. Largely the evidence here to is inconclusive regarding their efficacy, although there is powerful data offered by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that charter schools have enhanced segregation. Finally, Minnesota has experimented with magnet schools, tinkered with class size, and given lip service to rectifying educational funding disparities across school districts. It has also talked of full day kindergarten and universal pre-school–both laudable adventures–but so far little money has been forthcoming for these adventures.

In so many ways Minnesota is a terrific microcosm of the reforms many advocates proposal to fix public schools and address the achievement gap. So many of the current ideas revolve around ideas such as vouchers, school choice, holding teachers accountable with merit pay, and closing poorly performing schools. For the most part, as education scholar Diane Ravich points out in recent books such as Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, these fads have mostly failed. There is little evidence that they have improved performance overall for students let alone addressed the achievement gap. Instead, they seem more the product of ideology–conservative attacks on teachers’ unions, government, and taxes–and less about education reform.

What Ravich is hinting at is that part of the reason why Johnny and Jane cannot read is about what schools are or are not doing, and part is about what society is or is not doing.

Perhaps the best recent book on the failure of American education is Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. She examines what the best performing school systems in the world are doing by looking at South Korea, Finland, and Poland. What she finds is that–to paraphrase President Obama–“That used to be us.” These countries take education seriously. Teaching and education are held out to be important. Only the best and brightest are selected to be teachers, educated at a finite number of colleges that impose rigorous standards. Teachers are subject to constant training and support and–mostly importantly–are paid well for their efforts. There are also high demands set for students, and families are expected and do support schools and their children. Moreover the purpose of schools is clear and unambiguous–educate–and not confused with other distractions such as sports. In short, for those of us who grew up in the age of Sputnik and the race with the Russians to the Moon, education was culturally taken seriously. While singer Sam Cooke may have lamented that he did not know much about history, ignorance was not accepted as bliss. This is part of the message that South Korea, Finland, and Poland teach.

But what the Ripley and Ravich books also point out, and what we learned in the 1960s, is that students cannot learn if they come to school hungry, sick, or abused. The school lunch and breakfast programs as well as Head Start started under Lyndon Johnson pointed out that Johnny cannot study if he is hungry or starts at an educational disadvantage. That is still true today. Income and educational achievement are powerfully correlated, and if we want to address achievement gaps we need to address poverty. We also need to address racism–the racism that still condemns many students of color to inferior schools. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was supposed to desegregate schools and banish separate but equal from America. But the reality is 60 years later America’s schools remain as segregated as ever, with race and class reinforcing one another. One need only read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, or Fire in the Ashes to see the reality of how racial and economic discrimination plague American education.

So what is the point of all this when it comes to the achievement gap? Perhaps yes there are some things we can do in the classroom to improve educational outcomes and performance, but they are not what we are currently doing. Maybe smaller class sizes will help, but the evidence suggests only up to a point. Tracking or separating students out by ability also lacks data supporting its efficacy. But all day kindergarten, universal pre-school, and even all-year school demonstrate improved outcomes and life prospects for students. Programs such as HOSTS which feature one-on-one reading with students, yield results. Frankly, all students do better when they all do better, and that means we all of them are given the same chance and encouragement to learn.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to address the achievement gap is to confront the underlying poverty and racism that prevents students from learning. Governor Dayton was correct in proposing that the government pay for the lunches for students who cannot afford it. We need to go further. We need to stabilize the family situation of many students–nutrition programs, health care, housing, and other social service programs need to be strengthened so that children and family do not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or where their next bed will be located. We are never going to solve the achievement gap in the classroom until such time as we address the gap that separates students before they even walk into the classroom.

Note: This blog originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota.