Friday, August 20, 2010

What if we Closed the Achievement Gap and the Problem Remained?

Paul Tough has a piece in today's NY Times on the Harlem Children's Zone and Promise Neighborhoods that's worth a few minutes of your time.  But I actually want to comment on a tangentially related topic that the piece got me thinking about -- more specifically, this part:

Over the last few years, thanks in part to intensive recruiting by the New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Harlem and the Bronx have become a mecca for a highly successful class of charter schools, all run, to some degree, on the model of the nationwide, nonprofit Knowledge is Power Program: extended hours, energetic young teachers, an emphasis on discipline and character-building, as well as heavy doses of reading and math. 

These schools embody the attractive theory that we might be able to erase the achievement gaps between black and white children and between poor and middle-class children with nothing more than new and improved schools.

It made me wonder: what if, using this type of model, we successfully closed the achievement gap . . . and then realized that we hadn't really solved the problem.  Let's say we successfully raise math and reading test scores in the poorest neighborhoods but then find out that those children are still less likely to attend college, earn less money, get arrested more often, experience more health problems, and generally lag behind in both opportunities and quality of life.  What then?

Because the way I see it, the differences in math and reading standardized test scores isn't really the problem in and of itself but, rather, a symptom of a much larger problem with myriad causes.  This isn't to say that closing the achievement gap alone wouldn't be a good thing or wouldn't have ripple effects, just to suggest that focusing only on the gap in test scores is like focusing only on pumping water out of boat full full of holes . . . it would certainly be a good thing of the bilge pumps started removing more water than the boat was taking in, but in the end it really only alleviates one symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.


Attorney DC said...

Interesting post. I do think that if the achievement gap were to be closed (that is, if minority students' scores increased so as to be on par with white and Asian students' scores), we would see benefits. There's no way that the scores could increase that much without there having been an improvement in the average levels of effort or motivation on the part of minority students. However, I agree that it would not solve the whole problem.

din819go said...

My sons years ago in elementary school had an incredible pe teacher. He could tell you which child's parent was in prison, not in the home. He could tell you which child had a shooting in the neighborhood, etc. He took it upon himself to teach the kids etiquette, hygiene, manners, etc. No one told him to do this but he took it on himself. These most basic skills typically learned at home will help these kids...

The key to getting out of poverty is to break the cycle of poverty...typically done via education and the strong influence of positive adults in one's life who help keep the child on the right track...such as this pe coach. Too bad there were not more like him.

I have a question -- do you consider both Head Start and Title I failures. I do Head Start but don't have a lot of knowledge on Title I other than the funds could be managed better at the district level but the feds don't allow this...Thanks!

postacademicinnyc said...

Great post. Yes, let's test the shit out of low-income kids and then when they start passing those tests, their low-income status will miraculously no longer be an issue. Wait. . . what?