Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Closing the Achievement Gap

There are some educational issues that have become so covered with layers and layers of detail and nuance and policy and jargon and baloney and nature's own fertilizer that it can become difficult to see the relatively simple problem that lies beneath the giant mounds of stuff.

Closing the achievement gap is one such issue. It's the subject of considerable discussion and policy wrangling, and is the raison d'etre given for a variety of programs. But let's talk about what's really going on here. There are two ways to discuss closing the achievement gap, and only one of them is remotely useful.

Let's say that all students have to run a 5K race. The distance between the lead runners and the last-place runners is our Racing Gap.

If we're going to close the gap in one race, here's what we have to do. Chris is up front, leading the pack. Pat is far behind. Pat is behind because Pat runs slower. If we get Pat to run as fast as Chris, that just keeps the gap static. In order to close the gap, Pat-- who is demonstrably our slowest runner-- must run faster than Chris-- who is demonstrably our fastest runner.

This is nuts.

We can close this achievement gap one of two ways-- we can either strap Pat to a rocket or car or other faster-than-human conveyance, or we can weigh Chris down, Harrison Bergeron-style, so that Chris runs slower. Neither option is okay.

Trying to get everyone to run faster will help them beat their old times, but it will not close the gap. In fact, it will probably make it worse, just as giving all workers a 10% raise would make the pay gap worse.

Now, the achievement gap is not a completely useless construct if I work on a larger scale. If I look at the gaps over long stretches of time, I might see some trends that help me diagnose a problem. If Chris's parents beat Pat's parents by twice (or half) as much as Chris beats Pat, that might suggest that something has changed (though good luck narrowing down what, exactly).

But that's only a sort-of-useful diagnostic tool. Whether gap widens or narrows is symptomatic of something, but it's far more useful to try to address underlying problems than to simply try to make the symptom go away. The focus on closing the achievement gap is the same sort of myopic focus on massaging the numbers instead of addressing reality that infects so much of reformsterdom and leads us to ridiculous solutions like trying to figure out ways to make the slowest runners run faster than everyone else.


  1. The main way to close the achievement gap is to provide services only to Pat and deny Chris an appropriate education. This is actually commonly done intentionally and discussed. I've witnessed several times discussions on how to lower the achievement of "Chris," while providing benefits to "Pat."

    An easy example of this would be reading programs that reward students for "pages read" without a concern for difficulty of the text. Silver Stars can convince a second grade Harry Potter reader to go back to Dr. Seuss! In this situation, you will hear: "We're getting students to read."

  2. Perhaps Pat is behind because he does not have shoes.

    1. So stop measuring the gap and get him some damn shoes.

    2. I think that is an excellent idea, though after getting him some shoes we might want to see if that was the problem.

    3. Yeah, TE, that is tough to figure out. I mean, you certainly couldn't tell just by seeing if, after Pat gets his new shoes, does he catch up, lag behind further or stay the same? Obviously we need all kinds of funky new-fangled assessment tools to make that judgment.

    4. Tough to figure out without that new-fangled stopwatch thing. I suppose you could try and eyeball it, or use an hour glass. Not what the CC/track coach at my kids high school did though.

  3. It's what happens when testing becomes the "God". Test prep for everyone, all the time even when there is a large percentage that are able to move ahead and learn more (or in more depth). I have 2 high achievers that sit in classrooms bored out of their minds. One has entered High School now and she has no idea how to study, write well, research or think on her own. I can honestly say that I am amazed by all the things my kids DON'T KNOW! All in the name of test scores to close an achievement gap that can't be closed by teaching to the test. What a viscous cycle.

  4. We can't close the achievement gap. Perhaps a better approach would be to "open the opportunity gates."

  5. The thing is, Chris is farther ahead in the race because he started the race ahead of the starting line, and he had better training for the race than Pat did. Setting aside the question of natural athletic ability, the only way to improve the race gap would be to both give Pat earlier, better training, and to somehow improve his starting position so that he and Chris start the race on a more equal footing.

  6. Another factor is maybe Pat doesn't give a hoot about running. Maybe Lego robotics is more his thing. Or butterfly collecting. Or swing dancing. Why are we only measuring one "achievement gap"? Maybe Pat can sing a solo that can bring tears to every eye in the house while Chris sounds like a hyena trapped in a tin bucket. Why can't we all just have our own paths?