Ian V. Rowe
Founder & CEO, Vertex Partnership Academies
Senior Visiting Fellow, The Woodson Center
Senior Fellow, The American Enterprise Institute
For the last half-century, if you read the mission statement of virtually any education reform organization, you will find earnest language around closing either the racial or class achievement gap (or both). Unfortunately, the multi-decade obsession with closing achievement gaps has failed to not only close achievement gaps, but also has not substantively increased overall achievement levels. Four researchers recently took on this question: Eric A. Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Paul E. Peterson is senior editor of Education Next; professor of government and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance; and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Laura M. Talpey is a research associate at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Ludger Woessmann is professor of economics at the University of Munich.
In a widely read 2019 study published in Education Next magazine – The Achievement Gap Fails to Close – the researchers found that “the opportunity gap—that is, the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement—has not grown over the past 50 years. But neither has it closed. Instead, the gap between the haves and have-nots has persisted.”
These macro-results are not surprising. In May 2021, I was invited to provide testimony for the Rhode Island State Board of Education regarding how to improve educational outcomes. In preparation for the testimony, I pulled 8th grade NAEP reading proficiency scores for Rhode Island students since 1998. As is the case with most other states, in each year since the Nation’s Report Card was administered in Rhode Island in 1998, less than half of Rhode Island’s white students in the 8th grades scored NAEP proficient in reading. As the chart below indicates, the racial achievement gap has essentially remained the same for two decades. The sad irony is that closing the black or hispanic to white achievement gap, without improving outcomes for all students, would mean black and hispanic student outcomes would grow from sub-mediocrity to full-mediocrity in terms of reading.
Also, in raw numbers, far more white students are failing. In 2019, nearly 3,500 white 8th grade students, 2,200 hispanic students, and 784 black students, did not read at proficiency, based on the 2019 NAEP exam. Obviously white students make up a much larger segment of the overall population, and thus explain their larger representation in these categories, but still it is important to look at both proportional rates of success and actual student counts.
These numbers of failed reading proficiency – both in raw numbers and proportional rates by group – underscore our nation’s massive collective failure to effectively teach literacy and build verbal proficiency across all races and classes. It also shatters the accepted truth that there is any sole or even primary cause of low proficiency rates among black and Hispanic Americans. For example, systemic racism is unlikely the cause of such poor performance among white students. In my view, the multi-decade obsession with closing achievement gaps by certain categories has done something even worse: ushered in a mono-causal type of thinking that crowds out the ability to identify solutions across categories. If one believes systemic racism is the sole or primary cause of racial disparities, then a tendency of that conclusion is to identify a narrow universe of solutions focused on race as well. But that incomplete set of solutions has clearly not worked.
There is an alternative approach. Instead of a race or class-based gap approach, imagine if the strategy was what some call Distance to 100. Distance to 100 would emphasize that the gap between 100% proficiency for all students and current performance levels is the gap that should be our dominant focus. Indeed, this approach would start with the question of why it is that only a little more than a third of all American students are reading at proficiency. That Distance to 100 – nearly 70% – is more than double the class and race-based achievement gaps.
If we adopted this approach, we would soon quickly discover that the reason that a majority of white students have consistently not been reading at grade level has significant overlap with the reason that a majority of black and other students have not been reading at grade level. For decades, education researchers from E.D. Hirsch to Dan Willingham to Natalie Wexler have made the case that a lack of a focus on building knowledge in early reading instruction has had a devastating impact on all of America’s children. Natalie Wexler outlines the dilemma well in her book The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It:
American elementary education has been shaped by a theory that goes like this: Reading—a term used to mean not just matching letters to sounds but also comprehension—can be taught in a manner completely disconnected from content. Use simple texts to teach children how to find the main idea, make inferences, draw conclusions, and so on, and eventually they’ll be able to apply those skills to grasp the meaning of anything put in front of them.
In the meantime, what children are reading doesn’t really matter—it’s better for them to acquire skills that will enable them to discover knowledge for themselves later on than for them to be given information directly, or so the thinking goes. That is, they need to spend their time “learning to read” before “reading to learn.” Science can wait; history, which is considered too abstract for young minds to grasp, must wait. Reading time is filled, instead, with a variety of short books and passages unconnected to one another except by the “comprehension skills” they’re meant to teach.
As far back as 1977, early-elementary teachers spent more than twice as much time on reading as on science and social studies combined. But since 2001, when the federal No Child Left Behind legislation made standardized reading and math scores the yardstick for measuring progress, the time devoted to both subjects has only grown. In turn, the amount of time spent on social studies and science has plummeted—especially in schools where test scores are low.
And yet, despite the enormous expenditure of time and resources on reading, American children haven’t become better readers. For the past 20 years, only about a third of students have scored at or above the “proficient” level on national tests. For low-income and minority kids, the picture is especially bleak: Their average test scores are far below those of their more affluent, largely white peers—a phenomenon usually referred to as the achievement gap. As this gap has grown wider, America’s standing in international literacy rankings, already mediocre, has fallen.
All of which raises a disturbing question: What if the medicine we have been prescribing is only making matters worse, particularly for poor children? What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized—including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?
If we had a frame around “Distance to 100” then we would focus on what’s required to improve everyone’s achievement and those transcendent factors that truly are holding all kids back – lack of access to content-rich curriculum, unstable family structures, lack of school choice and ineffective strategies to teach reading – all of which have a far greater cumulative impact than the sole factor of race or class.
As Hanushek et al state, “The stubborn endurance of achievement inequalities suggests the need to reconsider policies and practices aimed at shrinking the gap. Although policymakers have repeatedly tried to break the link between students’ learning and their socioeconomic background, these interventions thus far have been unable to dent the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement. Perhaps it is time to consider alternatives.”
Distance to 100 for Everyone may be that empowering alternative.