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Feb 12 / Jonathan

Some obvious comments about school improvement and the achievement gap.

This is Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber. My guess is that our local administrators would insist , mostly, that “that’s what we’re already doing”. Teachers maybe not quite so much. And yet…

Go read the whole thing, and don’t neglect the comments.

Some obvious comments about school improvement and the achievement gap.

… How are you going to raise achievement of anyone? In normal industries there are two ways to increase output. Either you increase productivity, or you increase the inputs (in the case of education this is mainly going to come in the form of additional labour). Are you being given extra resources with which to purchase more labour? My guess is that, in the current environment in the US at least, the answer to that is “no”. So, you have to somehow increase productivity, that is increase the effectiveness of the teachers you already have.

So, what increase in achievement are you aiming for? Do you really think that you are going to close the achievement gap? That is, do you really think that you are going to get the lowest achievers in your school achieving at a higher level than the highest achievers currently do? (which is what you have to do if you are going to pursue school improvement at the same time). Think for a moment at the Herculean increase in productivity that would require. Do you really think there is that much slack in the school? Or do you mean, by addressing the achievement gap, something much more modest, like increasing the achievement of the highest achievers by 5% and that of the lowest by 10%? If so, and if you are going to be improving the school, then you still need to find something between 5 and 10% increase in effectiveness.

How are you going to do this?

Nobody denies that schools have lots of inefficiencies in them (or rather, some deny this publicly, but none do privately when pushed—my experience is that when a teacher denies there is any waste in their district, the easiest way to get them to retract is to ask what they did during their last in-service). But some of those inefficiencies are not within your power to eliminate; you cannot fire the worst teachers and principals, for example, or prohibit teachers from attending wasteful district meetings. The constraints are less strict if your district is on board with improvement, and is willing to implement district-wide policies that make sense. But still, you have limited space. Other inefficiencies are just difficult to identify. Mainly, what you want to do is improve the quality of the classroom teaching, and improve the fit between students and teachers (e.g., if you find that some teachers work especially well with middle-level achievers you assign them to classes populated by such children; if you find some work very badly with high achievers you don’t assign them to such classes). …

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