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.