No Child Left Behind Fails to Close Achievement Gap

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday had a nice piece by Claudio Sanchez; give it a listen.

Weekend Edition – Sunday, January 8, 2006 · Four years after the No Child Left Behind Act became law, test results show progress in some areas. But many schools are not reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students, and closing that gap may take longer than the law’s requirements.

In the piece, we hear from Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute. In the introduction to his book, Class and Schools, Rothstein argues,

Good teachers, high expectations, standards, accountability, and inspiration are not enough
As is argued in this book, the influence of social class characteristics is probably so powerful that schools cannot overcome it, no matter how well trained are their teachers and no matter how well designed are their instructional programs and climates. But saying that a social class achievement gap should be expected is not to make a logical statement. The fact that social class differences are associated with, and probably cause, a big gap in academic performance does not mean that, in theory, excellent schools could not offset these differences. Indeed, there are many claims today, made by policy makers and educators, that higher standards, better teachers, more accountability, better discipline, or other effective practices can close the achievement gap.

The most prominent of these claims has been made by a conservative policy institute (the Heritage Foundation), by a liberal advocacy group (the Education Trust), by economists and statisticians who claim to have shown that better teachers do in fact close the gap, by prominent educators, and by social critics. Many (although not all) of the instructional practices promoted by these commentators are well designed, and these practices probably do succeed in delivering better educations to some lower-class children. But a careful examination of each claim that a particular school or practice has closed the race or social class achievement gap shows that the claim is unfounded.

In some cases, the claim fails because it rests on the misinterpretation of test scores; in other cases, the claim fails because the successful schools identified have selective student bodies. Remember that the achievement gap is a phenomenon of averages — it compares the average achievement of lower- and middle-class students. In both social classes, some students perform well above or below the average performance of their social class peers. If schools can select (or attract) a disproportionate share of lower-class students whose performance is above average for their social class, those schools can appear to be quite successful. Many of them are excellent schools and should be commended. But their successes provide no evidence that their instructional approaches would close the achievement gap for students who are average for their social class groups.

For nearly half a century, the association of social and economic disadvantage with a student achievement gap has been well known to economists, sociologists, and educators. Most, however, have avoided the obvious implication of this understanding — raising the achievement of lower-class children requires amelioration of the social and economic conditions of their lives, not just school reform. Perhaps this small volume can spur a reconsideration of this needlessly neglected opportunity.

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