Over at NYT’s Freakonomics blog they’re hosting a discussion of ideas on closing the achievement gap. Contributors are: Caroline Hoxby, Daniel Hurley, Richard J. Murnane, and me. What jumps out at me from the comments section is how many people equate the discussion of the achievement gap as measured by standardized tests with a more general IQ or intelligence gap and then say that it’s folly to try to close that. In the No Child Left Behind context, the gap is about differences in pass rates and performance on tests, mostly state tests in grades 3-12. So depending where the bar is, the question of how intelligence or ability is distributed matters less or more and no one is saying we can eliminate all gaps, only that gaps in pass rates on these tests by race and income are not an immovable fact of life. In other words, it’s all about those cut scores!

My take is here:

Different schools have different effects on similar students. That is the primary finding from social science research, and a fact around which education policy should be organized. Put more plainly: schools matter. They can be a powerful force to address the gap, and demographics are not destiny for students.

That does not mean that schools can eliminate all social inequality, or that policymakers shouldn’t take common sense steps like expanding access to healthcare and prenatal care in low-income communities. But it does mean that many schools can do much better with poor and minority students, and that holding schools accountable for student learning is neither punitive nor unfair.

Unfortunately, there is a small industry in the education community built around tacitly giving schools soothing reassurance that they really can’t do much better with poor and minority kids than they are today. They can. And rather than attacking the gaps poor students bring with them when they first arrive at school, we actually exacerbate gaps by giving the least to the very students who need the most. Rhetorically, people say that schools matter, but our public policies do not yet systemically reflect it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Research, such as that by William Sanders and Eric Hanushek, shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. Good teachers can actually close or eliminate the gaps in achievement on standardized tests that separate white and minority students. Conversely, when at-risk students have a couple of lousy teachers in a row, it almost irreparably harms them. Consequently, policymakers should be unyielding in their efforts to ensure that there are effective teachers in every classroom.

Unfortunately, a recent report from Education Week shows that, overall, we are doing anything but. Parents should support these efforts, most of all because good teachers teach; they don’t resort to drilling kids, rote memorization, or other strategies that suck the joy out of learning.

It is not just about training, pay, and accountability for teachers, but also about creating schools where high performers want to be — and are — supported in their work. As former California Board of Education president and Netflix founder Reed Hastings points out: today we have as much a shortage of places where good teachers want to work as we do a shortage of good teachers.

That’s why this is not just a teacher problem, it’s a systemic one. But if we organize the public education system around the idea that teachers and schools matter to student outcomes — instead of implicitly around the idea that they don’t — we’ll see results and gap closing.

4 Replies to “Freaky”

  1. hi eduwonk,

    on the point below – can you point me towards studies that find large school effects? perhaps i am missing something, but as i read this literature, school effects are tiny relative to teacher effects.

    Different schools have different effects on similar students. That is the primary finding from social science research, and a fact around which education policy should be organized. Put more plainly: schools matter.

  2. I’ve heard the IQ argument for a long time, and have summarily dismissed it every time. Many of the people pushing these IQ theories have no concept of what its like within inner city school systems… among other things.

    This leads to a different point that I’ve noticed about education, and a sentiment that one of the blog comments reminded me of. Mike wrote:

    “Attempts to force it from outside of the community often seem patronizing at best, and can be downright destructive at worst… This isn’t to say that outsiders can’t have a positive effect, only that insiders are best able to *lead* the effort and ensure that the movement as a whole resonates with what the community needs and can accept… I see something like this as more effective than having well-meaning but still outsider university staff come and lecture at us, as has happened in the past.”

    I think this bears repeating over and over again. Or until I can finally watch some discussion about education over youtube or and have at least one person take note of the overwhelming homogeneity at these conferences.

  3. Your link to the Turnaround conference provides an opportunity to bridge some of the gaps in the discussion. Even the best-funded efforts, with the maximum authority over teachers, were not able to take advantage of their flexibility because “all districts face the same practical challenge … (the lack of) a capable pool of people… to fill newly freed up positions.” The papers included several other statements similar to your statement that we have a “shortage of places where good teachers want to work as we do a shortage of good teachers.”

    Notice that the proposed solutions have a price tag that is far beyond anything contemplated for urban schools. If we want to address the increasing costs of segregation and generational poverty, we’d need capacity for up to 30 more days and up to 4.5 more hours per day. Or better, we could provide poor high school kids what they really need, respectful relationships with caring adults, apprenticeships and travel. (and I don’t mean a vo-tech dumping ground.)

    Paraphrasing the discussion, I have no doubt that America could create … (the capacity for closing the achievement gap) but “I do have doubts about the commitment to pay for such a dramatic change.”

    If we’re talking social science, the Eduwonkette clearly has made a more accurate summary of our knowledge, but we’re also talking politics. I still question your political stance. We teachers don’t need “soothing reassurance that they (we) can’t do much better …” Take a look at this week’s newspapers in Chicago and Philadelphia about the heroic police efforts that can’t even keep order when school is dismissed. Some individuals and some schools can be effective given current realities. But we know we can’t make a dent in the worst problems without addressing deeper problems. As Calkins wrote, “we have yet to figure out, broadly speaking, how to break the link between poverty and low achievement.”

    And Carol, I would respond that I never hear the IQ argument except to ridicule it. But reading the blog comments, I was appalled. So I guess I should qualify my observations about politics. Maybe Ed Sector and others have to go along with the straw man of unions resisting change.Perhaps we all have to defend ourselves from the anti-education sentiments of society. But I still see honesty as the best approach and we must be frank about the challenge we face. That’s just one more reason why I’m so hopeful, perhaps overly hopeful, that Obama can give us all more freedom to say the things that we haven’t dared to communicate in public.

  4. I also agree. Speaking as someone who have teaching experience I know teachers could make it happen and resolve the issue of student achievement, but teachers would need support from family, school and government.

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