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Is It Really Time to Re-think Education Reform Focus on The Achievement Gap?

What’s going on in the world of education reform? Every once in awhile, even a precocious 5-year-old like myself can benefit from stepping back to try to get a better look at the big picture. With a penetrating eye and a nuanced approach, the prolific Rick Hess takes on one of K-12 reformers’ sacred cows–the focus on the achievement gap:

…The legacy of achievement gap mania isn’t necessarily undesirable. Focusing on the neediest students is admirable, as far as it goes. With limited time, talent, and resources, we can’t do everything–and it’s not unreasonable that some think our priority in every case should be the most in need.

The real problem has been the unwillingness of gap-closers to acknowledge the costs of their agenda or its implications. And yet, the groupthink consensus that the business of education is “closing achievement gaps” has made it tough to talk honestly about the costs–for fear of being branded a racist or thought unconcerned with inequities. It has dreadfully narrowed the potential coalition for reform. It has distorted the way we’ve approached educational choice, accountability, and reform. It has warped and retarded the pace, reach, and power of school improvement efforts. And it has yielded a stifling and ultimately troubling vision of schooling.

Before you follow the natural urge to respond, you really also ought to read Hess’s entire National Affairs essay that got this rolling. No one can ever say he is afraid to stir the pot.

I think the timing of Hess’s commentary is interesting, and probably reflects a prolonged sour economy and some belt-tightening among K-12 budgets. If we really want more productive and effective schools for all students, as I do, the sudden reality of scarce resources can provide a mild shock to re-think grand strategies somewhat. It’s a healthy and important thing to do.

Anyway, mere coincidence or not, the mini-kerfuffle over Hess’s challenging argument times well as a prelude to the release of the new Fordham Institute report Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?. No, Chester Finn’s think tank hasn’t suddenly developed an interest in aviation. Rather, the report identifies some mixed results for early high-performing students as they are promoted into higher grades.

One of Fordham’s lesser-touted findings ties even more directly into the whole debate about the achievement gap, between schools and within schools:

High flyers at low-poverty schools performed on average at the 97th percentile in third grade math, while high flyers at high-poverty schools scored at the 83rd percentile—a difference representing over a year’s worth of growth. By fifth grade, however, they scored at the 97th and 82nd percentiles, respectively. While high achievers in high-poverty schools grew slightly less than those in low-poverty schools, the difference was marginal. The same pattern held for middle school math. For both elementary and middle school reading, the gaps between high-achieving students in high- and low-poverty schools slightly diminished over time, but again, only marginally.

These findings suggest that the relationship between a school’s poverty rate and extent of growth among its high-achieving students is very weak. In fact, both high- and low-poverty schools varied dramatically in the growth of their high achievers; in other words, high- and low-growth schools could be found among high- and low-poverty schools alike. Attending a low-poverty school improves the average high achiever’s prospects for growth by very little; it appears that factors other than poverty control the growth of high achievers within a given school….

Some of you out there may think it’s kind of selfish of a high-flyer kid like me to spend so much time giving attention to this question. But I do think between Hess and Fordham there are some points to be considered here. Please digest your food for thought and get back to me with comments. Should the education reform movement take away anything from this? If so, what?