Closing the Achievement Gap: Public Policy That Banks Too Heavily on Schools

The mantra of “closing the gap” in test scores between whites and minorities has become public policy. Why? Because closing the gap is linked to more economic growth and less social inequities in the U.S.  Such reductions in the test score gap and income inequality between blacks and whites did occur between 1971 and  1989 (e.g., black salaries rose nearly 30 percent in  comparison to white salaries). A substantial victory. Since 1989, however, reductions in the gaps in scores and income distribution have ceased. No one can say why with any certainty.

Policy advocates have their own theories as to what caused the substantial decrease in that earlier period and also why subsequent regress has occurred. Some explanations depend upon the strong linkage between family income and test scores. Social scientists estimate the percentage of the test score gap due to family income to be around 30 percent. As black-white gaps in family income dissolve test score gaps between whites and minorities will shrink. That  occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. The key to that reduction, they say, are the cognitive skills (reading, math, thinking, etc.) that children and youth have picked up in family and school.

Other social scientists, bolstered considerably by business leaders, explain the shrinking test score gap and its subsequent stall by looking at what federal and state legislation and public school interventions did and then stopped. Renewed interventions, they say, could reinvigorate efforts to reduce inequities and bring economic growth.

So one policy direction is to concentrate on what schools can do to increase minority children’s cognitive skills by improving teacher quality, changing parenting skills and investing in early childhood development. More preschool education, reducing class size in the early years of schooling, and promoting parental choice efforts among minority parents as well as family practices that have been shown to increase cognitive skills (e.g., reading to toddlers, parental involvement in school). This policy direction relies upon what federal and state officials and practitioners can do to close the gap.

Another policy direction is to focus on those social, economic, and political structures that heavily impact employment and family income such as higher minimum wage, progressive taxation, and reducing labor market discrimination. By making such socioeconomic and political interventions, family income and other benefits could flow to parents that would improve how their sons and daughters perform in school.

Of course, there are other policymakers and social scientists who argue that both approaches–working to improve school achievement and making structural changes–are essential to reducing school and societal inequalities.

Currently, of these policy directions, schools working on teacher quality, cognitive skills and supplying students wuth educational credentials dominate national rhetoric and federal, state, and local action. No Child Left Behind, school leaders preaching “no excuses, just results” from Peoria through most big cities , films such as “Waiting for Superman“–all underscore that schools are central to the future success of America’s children and the nation. The past four U.S. Presidents have said it. Corporate leaders have preached it. The words have become gospel for both parents and college educated youth. From Teach for America to KIPP, from charters to small high schools,  new teachers and principals have gone into the most difficult of urban schools to reduce the test score gap and social inequities.

No surprise here since American faith in the power of schooling to make citizens, prepare workers, build moral character while boosting individuals up the ladder of success has been unstinting for nearly two centuries. Nor is there any surprise here that national problems have been “educationalized,” an historic process of converting serious economic and social issues into school-based curricular, instructional, organizational, and funding solutions.

And this hardy faith and “educationalizing” of national problems is captured by the mantra of reducing test score gap. For the past decade, solutions have been more charter schools, raising teacher quality through better evaluation and pay-for-performance plans, national standards, and testing and accountability.

This may be as good as it gets. Income inequality (the percentage of wealth that has gone to the top one percent and the amounts divvied up among the rest of Americans) is as bad as it was in the late-1920s. Racially and ethnically segregated schools have increased in every section of the country. Since the Great Recession of 2008, unemployment, housing foreclosures, and poverty have gone up as middle class families slip down the socioeconomic ladder.  And the test score gap remains nearly frozen.

Public policy, then, focusing on school improvement to deal with these serious issues relies far too much on a conservative institution that mirrors society far more than its past performance in spurring economic growth or reducing inequities.



Filed under school reform policies

3 responses to “Closing the Achievement Gap: Public Policy That Banks Too Heavily on Schools

  1. The manner in which so many social problems have been in your word, “educationalized” is at best, unhelpful and at worst, deceitful. It seems to me to be a product of the dominant, utilitarian view of education.

    Good, successful teachers know that they don’t teach classes: they teach individuals, and one of the things which distinguishes the good from others is the skill with which they manage the reality that while they do indeed teach a “class,” they simultaneously manage the learning of thirty of more, unique people.

    If there is one step I would like to see taken more boldly by all those undoubtedly well-meaning professionals working in the school improvement arena, it is a stronger, more confident focus on the individual child’s responsibility. My time working in weak schools in the UK constantly brought me up against children (and teachers) who would quickly point to any number of external factors or reasons to explain away poor performance.

  2. Cal

    We don’t even know if the achievement gap can be closed, much less whether it’s up to the schools to do it. There are all sorts of reasons why the achievement gap would have been reduced during the years 1971-89, and it certainly wasn’t due to school reforms.

    Poverty only explains a piece of the gap, as you point out. Check California’s CST scores: economically disadvantaged whites outscore non-economically disadvantaged blacks and tie non-economically disadvantaged Hispanics in pretty much every subject.

    We have no evidence we can eliminate the gap. Yet our entire public policy is based on the assumption that not only can we eliminate it, but that the mere existence of the gap is evidence of bad schools and terrible teachers.


  3. Pingback: Politics of Decline? « Politics of Decline Redux

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