« When Tests Don't Measure Well What They Appear to be Measuring | Main | Test Scores and Reinforcing the Wrong Connections »

Can Better Teachers Close the Achievement Gap?


Dear Deb,

A new report by McKinsey & Co., the management consultants, came out last week, and it is worthy of our attention.

The report was released at a press conference in Washington, D.C., by NYC Chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The McKinsey report acknowledges their "significant input," along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and others.

At the press conference, according to the story in The New York Times, Chancellor Klein “said the study vindicated the idea that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but subpar teachers and principals.” This study offered Chancellor Klein the opportunity to argue yet again, as the Education Equality Project does, that schools alone can close the achievement gap, and that such things as poverty and social disadvantage are merely excuses for those unwilling to accept the challenge.

Actually, the report doesn’t say this. McKinsey’s analysts describe the economic cost of the racial and economic disparities in American education. They calculate how many billions and trillions richer our nation would be had we closed the achievement gap a decade ago. The document says little about causes and cures, just lays out what it costs our society to have so many people who are poorly educated. It does say that low-income students are likely to get less experienced, less qualified teachers, and that schools in poor neighborhoods have less money for education than those in affluent districts. Anyone of any ideology or political persuasion should be unsettled by the wide disparities between students from different economic backgrounds.

Of course, none of this is new. Academics and educators have been concerned about the achievement gap for many years. Since SAT scores and NAEP scores were disaggregated by race and income, the dimensions of the gap have been clear, and many scholars, school districts, universities, and agencies have sought to find solutions to it.

My hunch is that an editorial writer could read the McKinsey report and use it to argue for eradicating poverty, which is highly correlated with low educational performance.

But Klein and Sharpton use it to say something that the report itself does not say, which is that the only reason that the gap exists is because of subpar teachers and principals. Thus, if a school system can change its teachers and principals, the gaps should close. Klein has been in charge of the New York City public school system for the past seven years. He has replaced 80 percent of its principals during this time; the number of teachers he has replaced has not been reported. Yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there has been no decline in the achievement gap among racial and ethnic groups in New York City since Klein took charge.

Next comes The New York Times’ best-selling author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who wrote about the McKinsey study last week. Friedman draws a direct linkage between the decline of our education system and the decline of our economy. His column ends with a plug for Teach for America, which he apparently sees as one important answer to the problem. He writes about the huge surge in applications to join TFA, with the total number up by 40 percent, including 11 percent of all Ivy League seniors. Maybe I am missing something. Teach for America has, according to its Web site, “more than 14,000 alumni” and “more than 6,000” current TFA teachers. Even if it recruits and fields 10,000 young people next year, how are these small numbers of teachers—most of whom will leave after two or three years—going to transform the teaching profession, in which there are more than three million teachers?

I don’t know of any social scientist who believes that poverty has no bearing on academic achievement, on children's health, on their sense of efficacy, on their family stability, or on a host of other social factors that influence academic achievement. I think we will have to see an entire urban district where KIPP and TFA have taken over and closed the achievement gap before we can conclude that poverty and family circumstances don’t matter.

Until then, the political use of the McKinsey study just serves to divert attention from the need to improve the lives of poor children and their families.



Thank you for your very thoughtful response to this report. I, too, was perplexed by claims that the report had proven anything about the root causes of achievement gaps.

It is helpful to rescue the report--or at least some of its major findings--from political misappropriation. Despite methodological concerns some people have raised about the report, we should not overlook at least three of its most important conclusions: 1.) Race and poverty do not have to be destiny; 2.) Investments in equity pay off; 3.) You should worry about other people’s children, because your well-being depends on their well-being.

Each of these points could support the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

Dear Diane, Good Tuesday summer morn.

Perhaps we might, as the birds chirp happily and the lilac perfumes the air, indulge ourselves a thought experiment.

Let us say that digging through the books here, I finally found that magic wand I've been missing; dust it off, and give it a whirl. It seems to work OK, the dog stops yapping. After my ski boat and a little better work area for moi, I give it an extra big wave and nicely, I have accomplished quite a bit 'to improve the lives of poor children and their families'.

OK, so you define that as you would. Health, bigger bolder, 40 hour work weeks for parents, good pc's for all students, your choice. The only catch is, it won't last forever. Whatever 'improvements' you wanted the body politic to enact and deliver, they are there--but only for some unknown period of, say, 3-12 years.

Given that progress, what then are teachers, students, and policy makers to do?

If I am reading you right, they really need do nothing special. We have done all that can be done. Perhaps we can implore the wand to continue past its irrational deadline. Beyond that, though, no structural changes need be made. That is, I understand you want the testing tyrants to back down, and you expect that that gap will close. Yet is there anything else you feel should happen?

There are all sorts of directions we could take this thought game, were we inclined to give it time and leisurely thought. I'm interested in where you would take it from here, and whether you believe education could do anything to set kids up for success when the wand's magic expires.


It's amazing, but over the last week, this report has garnered the applauds and disdains of just about every segment of the political and social education-profession spectrum. The left hates it, the left loves it; the right hates it, the right loves it. It proves teachers are terrible; it proves teachers are great. It proves poverty is the issue; it proves poverty is meaningless.

It's a perfect little piece of quantitative ambiguity.


I'd just add one point to your excellent post. Sharpton and Klein didn't just discover the report on the subway seat nest to them on their trip to the EEP press conference. A careful reading shows a consultant's report that was designed to be inherently political. It might as well of come from the international firm's PR department.

I, too, don't know of any social scientist "who believes that poverty has no bearing on academic achievement, on children's health, on their sense of efficacy, on their family stability, or on a host of other social factors that influence academic achievement." And, if McKinsey were suggesting this, that might be important. As McKinsey doesn't go there, I am not certain of the relevance.

In fact, McKinsey goes to some length to underscore the complex inter-relationship between poor educational achievement and poverty, employment, health outcomes, etc. It is quite clear that in all cases, students from impoverished background bring baggage with them into the classroom. Low-income students, even in schools and districts that tend to perform well, do less well. Likewise, race and ethnicity appear to have an impact across the board. At all income levels, students who are black or Hispanic do less well than their white peers. Sometimes dramatically so. One should also add that American students as a group do less well than students in a number of other countries. These things we know and have known, many of them going back to Coleman.

What McKinsey adds to this (in addition to the wishful thinking that if we had solved these problems things would be much better economically by now--likely very true--although I am quite certain that the dollar amounts are open to question), is the tremendous amount of difference that exists between states, between similarly situated districts, between similarly situated schools, and even between classrooms within schools. Doing well overall, as Massachussets has, does not indicate that the lower performers have moved closer to the higher performers (although one is still much better off being poor and white in Massachussetts than poor and black in DC--by about 4 years of learning). Dealing with the challenge of low-income immigrants is not an immutable indicator of destiny, as evidenced by differences in comparative outcomes in California and Texas. The differences can be measure in years of learning, despite matching demographics.

There is no need to see an entire district where KIPP and TFA have taken over to see progress in closing achievement gaps. McKinsey offers four similarly situated (economics, demographics) districts in Texas with profound differences in gaps, in proficiency on TAKS and in dropout rate.

The fact that income and race/ethnicity have an impact on educational outcomes do not excuse systemic issues that serve to compound the disparity. As crude an indicator as years of teaching experience is, we know that teachers in their first three years of teaching have a dramatic learning curve that relates to student outcomes. We also know that such teachers are more likely to teach in low-income schools and districts. McKinsey recommends further study into the factors that influence this phenomenon (and, one presumes, how these might be changed). One factor worthy of consideration is the role of funding inequities between districts, and between schools within a district. While acknowledging a few districts with very high per-pupil expenditures and abysmal results, in more instances low expenditures and low performance appear to be linked.

While Diane sees danger in diverting attention from the role of poverty in impacting education, I think there is equal danger in overlooking the role of education systems in perpetuating poverty. I don't know many teachers who entered the classroom believing that they could not make a difference. Of those who remain after years of experience in some of the crummiest working conditions that exist in schools today will attest to staying on in the belief that they, and their efforts, can in fact make a difference in their lives of their students. Likewise, these experienced educators select with care the education experiences of their own children, in the belief that some are much better than others.

How is it that when operating at the policy level, so many reject this same thinking and experience. Teachers matter--and what they know and do matters more. Schools matter--and what they enable teachers to do (or prevent them from doing) matters. And these are the things that educators have within their locus of control. Perhaps not absolutely, but certainly with a greater degree of influence than employment levels or health care. I say concern about the lives of children and families living in poverty is laudable. To see the link between this and educational possibilities is important. But then work to collaborate with the people (public health, social services, housing) who are already engaged in these areas. Acknowledge that in the public funding arena there may need to be some give and take when it comes to meeting the budgetary needs of all of these. Work with them to set priorities that consider the needs of children.

But--don't drop the ball on education. There are disparities within public education, that arise within the realm of public education, that need to be, and deserve to be addressed.

Of those who remain after years of experience in some of the crummiest working conditions that exist in schools today will attest to staying on in the belief that they, and their efforts, can in fact make a difference in their lives of their students.

Unfortunately, belief has nothing to do with it. They believe they can make a difference because they do, however little that difference is. Of course, it is a delusion to think that teachers can make anything more than a passing difference in a child's life. The difference made is up to the child.

End poverty, and the cycle breaks. Margo/Mom, seriously, schools don't create poverty anymore than they can make it go away!


And how would you account for the dramatically different concentrations of student choices when comparing classes, schools, districts or states?

I don't understand what you mean when you say different concentrations of student choices....

Please explain what you mean, and how what you mean accounts for the gap (I assume that is where you are heading...)

A variant of Gresham's Law seems to apply these days: "Bad educational research drives out good research."

It didn't take a study to argue the "lessons:"

1.) Race and poverty do not have to be destiny; 2.) Investments in equity pay off; 3.) You should worry about other people’s children, because your well-being depends on their well-being.

The study added nothing to these statements.

Where were the McKinsey analysts, Tom Friedman, and the other pundits during the Social Sci 101 lecture on correlation and causation? The claim that eliminating the "achievement gap" would have increased our GDP by trillions is pure bunk. The analysts had to "invent a model for the study" to get the specious results.

We have to teach with the teachers we have. The "deficits" aren't in the kids or teachers. They're in the texts and tests that form the backbone of instruction.

At the same time, sound research such as the IES "Impact Evaluation of Reading First" and the the NCES "Early Childhood Longitudinal Study" go un-noticed.

The determinants of the "Achievement Gap" are not to be found in the kids or their families. They stem from inadvertent toxic instruction and instructionally insensitive achievement tests. These are promulgated by the unaccountables at the top of the Ed Chain, who are too occupied with calling for responsibility and accountability by teachers, kids, and students to consider the consequences of
their mandates.


McKinsey defines four gaps that are examined in the report. These are 1)international; 2)racial; 3)income and 4)systems-based. The performance of US students lags behind that of a number of other countries internationally--particulary at upper grade levels. Students who are black and Hispanic do less well than students who are white (and Asian, although this did not get a good deal of attention). This is true across income levels, and students at upper income levels out-perform students at lower income levels. In addition, there are wide disparities between the achievement of students by state, between districts of like demographic make-up and between schools of similar demographic make-up. There are classroom to classroom disparities within schools. This is mostly not new information, however it is well presented and the examples striking. And certainly the one accomplishment of NCLB that is indisputable is the production of a quantity of comparable data. Within state data was reported using state assessments, between state data used NAEP.

If poverty alone, or poverty plus student choice ("the difference is up to the child") could be implicated in differences in achievement, we would be looking at a much more randomized distribution than is evident. Poverty matters. Poverty plus race/ethnicity matters more. Poverty plus race/ethnicity plus state factors plus district factors plus school factors plus teacher factors account for an enormous amount of variation in achievement. At the end of the day, some kids get everything. Some get nothing. And the kids who started with nothing are more likely to continue with nothing (in terms of what is contributed at the state/district/school/teacher level) than those who started off with a good deal more.

The important corollary to accepting that teachers make a difference is that some make more difference than others (and some make a greater difference at some points in their own career). And not to lay too much at the feet of teachers, schools make a difference, and some more than others. Districts make a difference. I cannot imagine that there is a teacher on the face of the earth that does not accept this. And yet, rather than looking at the differences, and seeking ways to manipulate the differences to improve the education of children--particularly those who live in poverty--the differences are minimized. All the teachers are OK. It's only the children who are different. Just fix the children and we'll all be all right.

Hi all....

Ed...Given that progress, what then are teachers, students, and policy makers to do?

If I am reading you right, they really need do nothing special. We have done all that can be done. Perhaps we can implore the wand to continue past its irrational deadline. Beyond that, though, no structural changes need be made. That is, I understand you want the testing tyrants to back down, and you expect that that gap will close. Yet is there anything else you feel should happen?

Ed...diane has written forever on this question of yours.

Deb has also written many books on your question.... here is a nice Q & A which gives some insight into what she has done in schools....

Not exactly what i would call as defenders of the status quo at all!

The direction however is very different and it extends well beyond urban schools working with poor kids.

Have you read their work?

be well... mike

A view from El Milagro:

We made significant gains in bridging the achievement gap at my school as the quality, competence and confidence of our young teaching staff improved. No question about it. We are believers that much of the work in school reform rests in improving teaching and school leadership.

However... good teaching alone is not enough to reverse the effects of poverty on learning in America. And I wonder how long serious leaders intend to debate that correlation-- given that it has been consistent for nearly 50 years.

The Bush approach to school reform was to threaten schools under the guise of accountability and chide them for making excuses when we pointed out that conditions that our children face outside of school every day. So we developed strategies around resiliency-- to help children rise above adversity-- while we waited for the opportunity to vote Bush and the Republicans out of office and replace them with people who actually care about our children.

Now President Obama is approaching this whole issue with a fresh perspective. And as I argued here last week, he stands to radically transform education in America-- not by passing his education policies-- but rather, by providing every child with universal health care. The inequities in academic achievement that we find across racial, ethnic, socio-economic and cultural lines, will largely be mitigated when every child has equal access to vision care, dentistry, pediatricians, nutrition counselors, disease control specialists and mental health experts.

Poverty affects school readiness and children's life experience. But it's most detrimental affect is on student wellness and their ultimate ability to attend to the complex tasks of learning. Not even the greatest teachers on the planet (some of whom-- I am convinced-- are teaching down the hallway as I write this) are fully equipped to rise above those conditions over which they have so little control.

Again, I blogged about the urgent need for the President's health care reform in my El Milagro Weblog.

Poverty and family circumstances are variables that simply cannot be ignored regardless of what New York's "odd couple" may claim.

Forty three years ago perhaps the most influential social policy study ever conducted in this country concluded, "Student background and socioeconomic status are much more important in determining educational outcomes than are measured differences in school resources (i.e. per pupil spending)." This of course is the infamous Coleman Report. Its findings still ring true today.

Good teachers can make some difference in some instances, but not in enough cases. The reality is that between the ages of six and eighteen years of age just eighteen percent of the total time in a child's life is spent in school. The remaining four fifths (plus) of their lives are often spent in unimaginable circumstances, in environments too many of these youngsters sadly have great difficulty overcoming. Their schools and especially their teachers are left in the unenviable position of attempting to pick up the pieces.

Does this mean there’s no hope for these kids? No sir! Helping these kids one child at a time can make a difference. The problem US schools face today is trying to figure out how to accomplish this monumental task on a large scale.

What strikes me as mildly ironic is that while Klein and Sharpton claim good teachers and good principals can be difference makers in the lives of poor children they make no corollary argument regarding the administrative decisions of central office administrators and/or policy decisions of school boards?


Just for the sake of argument, what percentage of total time is required to make a difference? Say to move the black kids living in poverty in DC across the four year (academically speaking) divide to the level of the poor white kids living in Massachussetts? Personally, I don't have such a tough time imagining the lives of many of the kids going to school in the urban ghetto. Maybe because this is where I live. Maybe because the upper middle class home where I grew up wasn't "all that." Books and employment and education of parents (and having two of them around) are certainly important and I don't discount their value in my own life. But, there are a whole lot of other good qualities: resiliency, community, faith and spirituality, that are profoundly overlooked in judging the lives of kids who live in poverty.

But all of this poverty is destiny thinking totally rejects real differences that exist between the ability of various sectors of the great American education machine to educate kids who are poor (and black). These differences are real, substantial and for the most part unaccounted for. Knowing that the differences are there doesn't tell us why they are there or what to do about them. But it should lead us to want to find out, rather than pretending that they are not there, and there's nothing better than can be done (unless we can end poverty first).

Diane's point about Teach for America's miniscule numbers compared to the nation's teaching corps as a whole is an important one. Klein (and probably many other superintendents across the US) seems to operate on the premise that one day they will be able to replace all the old mere-mortal teachers with bright-eyed, bushy tailed Rhodes scholars. But even if you harvested the entire graduating classes of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc. you still wouldn't have numbers that came even close to meeting the need. Sorry, but we're stuck with folks with non-genius IQs and finite reserves of energy.

So it's time to create a Plan B, Mr. Klein. How about giving earnest, hard-working, non-genius teachers some tools that will make them more effective? In France, teachers do manage to reduce the achievement gap. How? Their content-focused national curriculum probably has something to do with it. Perhaps NYC should try giving its teachers a Core Knowledge curriculum and content-specific professional development to help them implement it.

And how about helping with discipline? Am I wrong, or is the effectiveness of many NYC teachers hobbled by classroom discipline problems?

Certainly a stronger social safety net would help too. How much easier it would be to teach if more of our kids' parents had secure jobs with decent pay and benefits? How can kids be parented effectively --how can homework be monitored --if mom has to work two or three menial jobs just to make ends meet?.


No one is pretending anymore that the differences are not there. No Child Left Behind has identified these differences and labeled them the "achievement gap."

As for the remedy, ending poverty would clearly be a good start but short of that miracle happening anytime soon where are we to turn? Coleman identified the problem forty three years ago and here we still sit, almost a half century later, aimlessly seeking the holy grail.

I have more hope than ever with the current administration in Washington that significant inroads will be made. I believe, "Change has come to America." Time will tell.

I suppose Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Abe Lincoln could have achieved more had they not grown up in poverty.

It is the individual and the parents, not poverty that dictates success or failure. In school and in life, you get out of it what you put into it. If you put in a dimes worth of work do not expect a $10 return.

Furthermore, when we are looking to boarding schools (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1887875,00.html) to close the achievement gap, it is clear that the lack of success is not the fault of the teachers and/or schools, but the fault of the parents and students. Culture, values, morals, hard work, and attitude are the keys to success.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” - Shakespeare

A few examples of successful people who grew up in poverty
Da Vinci
Ben Carson - Gifted Hands
Jeannette Walls - Glass Castles
Chris Gardner - Pursuit of Happyness
The three doctors who grew up in poverty and wrote The Pact.
Walt Disney
Alberto Gonzales
Bill Clinton
And the list goes on…

Successful people who grew up in poverty are not the exception they are the norm. They are people who work hard and do not make excuses. Many CEOs, political leaders, entrepreneurs, and inventors as well as most successful people throughout time, grew up in poverty.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” but when we give students grades they do not deserve, when we promote students who have failed, when we allow students to misbehave, then we prevent students from learning the lessons in life that will make then kind, caring, successful, productive members of society. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123993279578927837.html

We need to stop blaming poverty, schools, teachers, ethnicity, etc., and start holding individuals accountable for their own successes or failures. The sooner we get back to reconnecting effort, results, and rewards, the sooner our country and our educational system will improve.

In my classroom, I see a direct correlation between student achievement/engagement and my own.

Sam Dillon of the New York Times has another timely piece in this morning's paper (www.nytimes.com), "The Achievement Gap for US Students Hasn't Narrowed."

Yes, Klein will continue to argue that New York State standards do not align with the NAEP tests. What does that tell you about New York's standards, Mr. Chancellor? How about their anemic and in desperate need of revision.

The fanciful notion that'It is the individual and the parents, not poverty that dictates success or failure, and that in school and in life, you get out of it what you put into it..' is out of whack with reality. Inequality is a key determining factor of which poverty plays a crucial part. Two British academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have written a book called the Spirit Level about equal societies which was recently reviewed in The Guardian:

"...they argue that almost every social problem common in developed societies - reduced life expectancy, child mortality, drugs, crime, homicide rates, mental illness and obesity - has a single root cause: inequality.

...it's not just the deprived underclass that loses out in an unequal society: everyone does, even the better off. Because it's not absolute levels of poverty that create the social problems, but the differentials in income between rich and poor...

Take these random headline statistics. The US is wealthier and spends more on health care than any other country, yet a baby born in Greece, where average income levels are about half that of the US, has a lower risk of infant mortality and longer life expectancy than an American baby. Obesity is twice as common in the UK as the more equal societies of Sweden and Norway, and six times more common in the US than in Japan. Teenage birth rates are six times higher in the UK than in more equal societies; mental illness is three times as common in the US as in Japan; murder rates are three times higher in more unequal countries. The examples are almost endless."

Have any of you read the report? From pg. 14:

Important performance gaps exist at every level in American education: among states, among districts within states, among schools within districts, and among classrooms within schools. This confirms what intuition would suggest and research has indicated: differences in public policies, systemwide strategies, school site leadership, teaching practice, and perhaps other systemic investments can fundamentally influence student achievement. California and Texas, for example, are two large states with similar demographics. Yet as shown in Exhibit 7, Texas students are, on average, one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age, even though Texas has less income per capita and spends less per pupil than California.12 Likewise, when comparing states like New Jersey and Connecticut, New Jersey has higher NAEP scores and a smaller racial achievement gap despite having a lower income per capita level and a higher proportion of racial minorities than Connecticut. These differences between states can be dramatic.


Thank you for pointing back at the report. Paul suggests that NCLB has identified the achievement gap(s). What the report does is to point out that we are in a position to learn, now, from looking less at the gaps between SES groups or racial/ethnic groups, but by examining the gaps between the various entities that are doing better with these groups and those doing the same. We cannot change genetics, and even changing culture and economics are at best very long-term strategies (and ones that educators may not be best-suited to take on). We CAN alter the structures and methodologies that exist within the context of education. We need to understand what Texas is doing that California is not (or vice versa). We need to figure out what it is that poor white kids in Massachussetts are getting that poor black kids in DC are not.

If the issue, as Paul suggested earlier, is that the amount (or percentage) of time with students is insufficient, then let's work on seeing that kids get what they need in order to learn. This does not mean leaping blindly into boarding schools to "rescue" kids from their homes and families--unless we have some solid evidence that this is truly what is needed and will be successful. It means looking at what the more successful schools, districts, states and teachers are doing and replicate and reproduce what is working.

It means that we accept the need to change the things that are within the purview of educators (and sorry, teachers, but I include principals, administrators, superintendants and even school board members in this group) to alter. What we are really looking for is not a see-saw of poverty vs education. We are looking for a "virtuous cycle" of improvement. I cannot imagine any move to eliminate poverty that does not include education in some very meaningful way. Nor can I foresee any educational improvements that do not have an impact on poverty. Kevin makes a point about the potential impact of universal health coverage on children's learning potential. What educators have yet to acknowledge is that in the last eight years we have moved closer (by leaps and bounds) to universal health coverage for children than we have ever been in the history of this country. We need to keep our focus on the benefits of universal education.

I think you're right. The value in this report is that it shows us the lay of the land, and points at that "hey, some stuff is working." Now lets get off our butts and figure out what it is!

This is not exactly directly relevant to this post, but it appears to me (a "resistance" education blogger in San Francisco) that Diane Ravitch has pretty much aligned politically and philosophically with Deb Meier by now and the name of this blog should be changed.

Also irrelevant but amusing, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker in 2002 that McKinsey, a former partner of Enron's, "essentially created the Enron culture." Quite a resume item.

Here's what Gladwell wrote:
The Enron scandal is now almost a year old. The reputations of Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, the company's two top executives, have been destroyed. Arthur Andersen, Enron's auditor, has been driven out of business, and now investigators have turned their attention to Enron's investment bankers. The one Enron partner that has escaped largely unscathed is McKinsey, which is odd, given that it essentially created the blueprint for the Enron culture.

As a current social scientist (cognitive psychologist) and college teacher, and a former DC public schools student and Harvard student, I find that equating good teaching with "smart" people very misguided. As Caroline mentions above, the Smartest Guys in the Room at Enron didn't do so great. The dream of getting thousands of Ivy graduates to enroll in Teach for America, thereby displacing the entrenched "bad" teachers is doubly destructive.
First, if implemented broadly, the short term nature of TFA will de-professionalize teaching, essentially saying that experience does not (and could not) matter. Experience may not show up on current standardized test scores of student achievement, but this could be due to the fact that the standardized scores are not measuring real learning. Or because to last longer than a few years in an urban public school system, part of the experience necessary is being able to ignore the trends of educational reformers and focus on teaching one's students. Or perhaps because any benefits of experience are offset by the myriad frustrations of being employed by an urban public school system.
Second, I am quite sure that while Harvard graduates may do better on standardized tests themselves, that does not make them by nature better at getting a class full of 8th graders to do the same. One could even make the case that the competitiveness of such institutions discourages cooperative learning, perspective taking, and other skills which are valuable to teaching. Many popular images of brilliant minds describe them as being impatient with we lesser humans, and that this is a positive thing (read any article about Larry Summers). This may be a testament to their brilliance, but certainly not to their ability to teach.

The question of responsibility for student achievement is complex and subtle. All those involved in students’ lives are responsible in some way for what they learn. Their economic circumstances play a large part, as do their own choices. No one should abdicate responsibility, nor should anyone assume complete responsibility. Just how much are we responsible? The question is not only practical or philosophical but also ethical.

There is something ethically disturbing about making teachers entirely responsible for student achievement. There is a hidden implication that teachers can and should coerce students into succeeding. Success is no longer an accomplishment in relation to a specific endeavor; it is an abstract requirement. Everyone must succeed, and the teacher that does not make the students succeed is bad.

This is apparent in the current mania for “learning goals.” Every student must have a “learning goal” (set by the teacher) in every subject. It is the teacher who determines and documents the goal, but the student must memorize it and be prepared to recite it to any visitor who walks in the room. These “learning goals” are required citywide in New York City; I believe they are taking over in other districts as well.

Goals are good things to have. But they are normally things we set for ourselves. They are our business. Yes, teachers can show students how to set goals for themselves and encourage them to do so. But to require everyone to have goals is to take their meaning away. Often the most important goals are ones we cherish and do not wish to divulge to any stranger. To make them public, mandatory information is to trivialize them.

Teachers, too, must have professional goals, and these, too, are set by others and determined by rubrics such as the constructivist Continuum of Teacher Development. Teachers are not supposed to set goals in their own words, on their own terms, much less keep their goals to themselves. Everything must follow a set language; everything must be public.

If we (students, teachers, everyone else) were granted basic responsibility for our own actions and basic privacy of thought, this would not happen. Of course we are responsible for each other as well as for ourselves. But we must not lose our responsibility for ourselves or our intellectual privacy and autonomy.

A goal can be vital or banal. Mandating it (and setting the language for it) tips it in the direction of banality. We must watch the scale.

I find it interesting that so many of these kinds of articles point to schools in poor areas as being impoverished or having less resources than schools in "rich" areas. Two huge federal programs give much more money to schools in impoverished areas. E-Rate gives up to 90% discounts on internet access, web hosting, student email, internal wiring, telephone service, server maintenance, etc. to schools with a majority of children on free and reduced lunch. In a district of 20,000 this means millions of dollars a year in savings. Want your school wireless? Poor schools pay $5000 of the $50000 price tag, while "rich" schools pay the full amount. The same goes for Title I, with more money being doled out to lower income schools.

We all know why the Kleins and Sharptons of the world tend to gloss over these facts, as it wouldn't be politically correct to point to parents, culture, or community within impoverished neighborhoods and it is much easier to blame the teachers. However, as the debate rages, lack of resources on the school's end should not be used as an excuse as it isn't valid. Parents in these areas have fewer resources, so kids come to school unprepared, but the schools themselves have more monetary resources than most "rich" schools.

One way that they lose money is lack of attendance, which tends to be a bigger problem in impoverished communities. Health is worse in those communities, but often parent dedication to education is much lower as well. Kids in our district miss an average of 8 days a year. As parents came to meetings about the budget, they were shocked to learn that if they just brought their kids 2 more days a year to school, we would receive over $1 million more from the government. The side effect is that they would also learn more.

Teachers get to teach the students they are given, and those students are a direct byproduct of their parents, and the importance their parents have placed on education.

Jeremy.... hope this finds you well.

Do not know what state you are in but the idea that there is equity in school funding is way off!

I am very familiar with Title 1 and e- rate but to suggest this evens things out is not a reality in the world i know.

Here is a link that may help concerning funding:

be well... mike

Jeremy, your final comment on parents says so much, much that is often skipped over on these pages.

How do we get parents who are committed to education? Many ways. But one wonders how many of the 65-75% dropouts in Detroit will become parents who highly value and sacrifice to see that their children are well educated?

Ironically, such dropout parents do regret their own decisions, and want better for their kids. Yet, they are less prepared to give the kids what they need. This is why people like me focus like a laser on getting them those diplomas.

I could puke each time I read here about us "blaming" schools for poverty. C'mon. No one is blaming anyone; we're working all the components we can.

Rather than blame, we are advocating solutions; seeing the only opportunity for this and the next generation: more kids out the door with a basic skills diploma.

Also, we don't agree directly with Annonie above, but we do understand her thrust. Most kids aren't Lincoln, daVinci, or Disney. Yet all kids need to hear just such stories. Telling them their 70% dropout rate is excused by the lack of a national health care system is preposterous, and in no way helping their prospects.

Above, I challenged all here to assume a magic wand temporarily suspended the problems of poverty and asked what then we would do to face the day when the temporary suspension ended. So far, no takers.

This is what I would do: I would look for all the good paying jobs, and I would look at how Black/urban young adults enter these at half the rate of their national demographics, and I would ask what we can do to get them the degrees and diplomas they need to get those jobs.

On that path, Margo asks about replicating results from one place to another. This seems not only a fair question, but a much more useful line of attack to take in an education forum. If this is to henceforth be the "all problems come from poverty and testing" forum, we'll not be very interesting at all.

Replication is a tough nut. Fordham is one place to learn about the toughness of "scaling up" solutions that work.

Yet one fact remains: if (leftwing) ideology tosses out many of the potential solutions for no good reason, the job of scaling up solutions is all the much more difficult.


I didn't intend to avoid your question from above, "Just for the sake of argument, what percentage of total time is required to make a difference? Say to move the black kids living in poverty in DC across the four year (academically speaking) divide to the level of the poor white kids living in Massachusetts?"

You’ve asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Personally, I don't have a definitive answer to offer, simply a theory based on a book we both read recently. I'm sure you remember Christensen's citing - the one about the first thirty six months of life. The child of white middle class college educated parents heard 49,000 spoken words in the first three years of life while the child of “welfare” parents heard just 13,000 spoken words in the same time. The citing doesn't even account for the caliber/quality/variety of the words either. Talk about a gap - in the formative years of life, no less. The two kids are running 400 meters with the white kid getting a 250 meter head start. The race is essentially over before it starts. How does a child conceivably overcome such a handicap? They don't - or at least many don't.

So my suggestion; get the black DC kids as much quality early childhood education as possible, at as early an age as possible. These programs cannot serve primarily as employment agencies for the community either. Their focus must be on the children and not providing jobs for the neighborhood adults. If staffed by competent, educated, knowledgeable adults, such a program could help the poor DC youngsters attain the academic level of the Massachusetts kids.

I'd go one step farther. I'd try to get the DC parents as much parental mentoring as well. I'm sure every one of these mothers wants their child to succeed in school. There are a number of hospitals in Massachusetts that send a parent primer home with new mothers. If they learn to turn off the television there would be greater opportunity for quality child/parent interaction. They need to talk with their infants/toddlers incessantly, about everything, as well as READ TO THEM EVERY NIGHT religiously. No excuses accepted. Such a program could lead these parents to the local library and programs they provide for young children as well. You know the drill as to what kids need. I certainly don’t need to fill you in as to what’s important.

What percent of total time is required to make a difference? It’s a fairly substantial number. Is it boarding school? Not sure. Get the philanthropists to spend their money on such a project. It could prove quite interesting.


You are right--we don't know the percentage of time it would require--or if that is in fact the issue, or an issue. I brought it up because it is among the truisms so often pointed to in substantiation of the twin beliefs that schools are already doing the best that they can do and that no amount of effort can connect improved education to better life outcomes (like less poverty--or an interruption of the cycle of generational poverty). The word study (BTW, Hart & Risely, not Christensen) consisted of 36 children, 7 of whom were children receiving welfare assistance. I am not terribly comfortable in generalizing from 7 children to the entire population of those in poverty--particularly when we see the kinds of state to state differences, school to school differences, etc, that McKinsey points to. But the whirlwind with which this particular study has become evidence of the destiny of poverty (or the fault of parents) speaks to an unwillingness to acknowledge the huge elephants in the livingroom.

I speak as someone who has gradually changed my impression of what is available in schools and the differences between the schools available to children of the poor. I have lived in and sent children to schools in an urban area for two decades. As an adoptive parent I have one child who has experienced since birth a dramatically different life from that afforded by his biological roots. This did not change any chemical/physical predelictions with regard to barriers that he faces in his life, as regards things that generally fall into the category of disability. Nor did it change the color of his skin. But the real learning experience for me has been the enormity of the influence of school.

Trust me--I am one of those parents who learned very early on all the ins and outs of the system. My kids were enrolled in the school lottery before they entered kindergarten. This worked well for one child, the one who socialized easily, read before kindergarten and follows rules. And the schools that she was able to attend had much higher levels of both non-poor and non-minority (as well as non-disabled) students.

My other child--who I assure you began school with more than the requisite number of words--was quickly shuttled out of the lottery system to a "neighborhood" school (with a "specially trained teacher" to better meet his needs). From there to a "special school" for kids with behavioral issues (who by some coincidence were almost all black, all poor and all male). This is sytematic segregation of the highest order. It is subtle. It is very difficult to "prove" (although at one point the Office of Civil Rights was able to document some official district policies that were subsequently changed) on an individual basis. There is an irony in that each district move that was taken to improve the opportunity of my child to learn was in the direction of schools where fewer kids across the board were actually achieving (some changes resulting over time with the mandated reporting of scores). Fewer teachers were appropriately certified. Curriculum was less likely to be comprehensive (including non-core curriculum). School climate--as evidenced by such things as discipline rates, but also by building maintenance, appropriateness of facilities, etc--was worse. My own observation is that hostility of school staff towards parents attempting involvement was much higher, with fewer "official" venues (such as PTA). Teachers would talk openly about "some of our kids" and launch into assumptions about their home lives--with very little knowledge of what home lives actually were like. Phones were not adequately answered and calls not returned timely. There was an enormous sense of "us" vs "them." And the "thems" were not highly regarded.

Now, Paul, the research tend to show that even in these kinds of schools parents read to their children and monitor their homework in the early grades (with a drop-off as there is in more affluent parents). Far less true as regards mathematics. When schools give parents specific things that they can do to improve mathematics achievement, they tend to do better (think about how much effort has gone into educating the public about the importance of reading to their children, taking them to the library, etc). But these "at-home" indicators of parental involvement (the ones that tend to be close to the same across income levels) are seldom the ones used to judge the involvement of parents. We judge by whether or not they show up for their assigned 15 minutes twice a year to meet with the teacher. We judge by whether they have a social life that includes the school (ie: PTA involvement).

In other words, Paul, I think that we are guilty of picking and choosing our indicators to support the easier point of view, which is that schools are doing the best that they can until somebody fixes the parents, or the communities. It's not an either/or. It's a both/and. Schools are a part of perpetuating the poverty of certain classes of folks. That's not a very pretty reality--and it's not what most folks intend when they set out to be a teacher. But until we are willing to take some honest looks at what goes on inside the schools, this will continue to be the case. Unless maybe all that parenting education on the outside launches a revolution of poor parents ready and willing to demand something better for their kids.

It is not poverty that causes low achievement but rather a paucity of experiences (otherwise known as "informal education") that often accompanies poverty. Of course, many, many people who came from poverty went on to obtain splendid educations. But if you study their biographies, (Lincoln is great example) almost every one of them had a mentor as well as opportunities to achieve.

We have known for over forty years that, in Coleman's words, "it's all family." Of course, the school is important and certainly gains can be made there, but unless we confront the reality of huge inequities outside of school, we'll never see a significant improvement in the achievement gap. Offering health care and high-quality preschool to every American child would be a step in the right direction. I am counting on President Obama to lead us there.


As always your post was very informative.

In my district where I taught in Massachusetts we participated in the METCO program. METCO is the busing of predominantly black Boston students to white suburban districts. It's supposed to be the cream of the crop but many of these youngsters were really hurting, academically and behaviorally.

The gulf for me occurred with the kids who came from Boston with commendable academic records. Sadly, many of these kids were two to three years behind their suburban peers. Also noticeable were their life experiences - many, borderline brutal.


Yes, offering universal health care and high-quality pre-school to every child would be huge. And Obama can get it done. The guy is caring, pragmatic, and intelligent. I too think he's got the whole package.

The following are comments made by Leo Linbeck III, scion of a powerful Houston family.

He is also "Chief Architect" of KIPP's $65 million dollar expansion plan that will make it the largest charter school network in the nation.

KIPP is planning to create 40 charter schools to compete with the "monopolistic" public schools.

Besides his support for KIPP, Mr. Linbeck co-founded a program, the Free Enterprise Institute, that promotes far-rigth historical interpretations among Texas high school teachers, mainly through well-funded conferences bringing conservative scholars and teachers together.

The comments, taken from the Belmont Club discussion group, speak for themselves.

"Unions generally only make things worse by increasing labor transaction costs...Unions are built on a static, monopolistic view of business...In the free market, when people don't get paid enough, or don't like their working conditions, they quit and go to work for a better employer."

"The Annenberg Challenge was a well-intentioned effort on the part of a very wealthy philanthropist to try to improve public education. But it failed because it was based upon a false assumption: a monopoly can be changed from within.Never, in the history of mankind, has a monopoly reformed itself from within. When reform has happened, it has always been because an external threat, a mortal competitor, spurred the necessary change."

"The people of the British Isle,
Were known for their wit and guile,
But in a twist tragicomic,
It morphed to Islamic
While its leaders remained in denial.

"while it may appear now that the forces of liberty are in retreat, I believe we will see a resergence of true conservative values among the one group that can still learn, and that is large enough to make a difference: the young....So talk to the young. Tell them what you believe. Speak truth to power. Fight the zeitgeist!"

"If the President gets his way, it will take a decade to undo the damage. And the ultimate irony is that the people who will suffer most through the period are the very people who put him in office: the poor, the young, and the clueless."

"But the impact is coming. Rest assured. If Obama's budget passes, he nationalizes health care, raises taxes on investments, and imposes his environmental religion on the nation, these things will have a massive, long-term effect. Then it will certainly be appropriate to call it the "Obama Economy." Or "Europe" for short. Cheers"

"When Obama was feeling the heat
He commanded his fellow elite
To follow his plan
But depression began
‘Cause they’re dupes of his fatal conceit."

"There once was a sheikh named Osama
Whose bombs were a source of high drama
When Bush was the chief
He encountered much grief
But he’s hoping for change with Obama."

"Your point about needing to repeal the 16th Amendment is a good one."

Finally, if Obama really completes the nationalization of healthcare (it’s already partially nationalized through Medicare), then all bets are off. The long-term growth of government will accelerate, and we’ll be looking at a 10 year period of stagnation. Or worse.

"But what Ayers saw in Obama was simple: a young man of color who was articulate, ambitious, and dedicated to reform. Ayers - the rich, white, unrepentant terrorist - was limited in what he could do. But Obama, well he could go places Ayers couldn’t go, win over people Ayers couldn’t work with, champion issues Ayers couldn’t champion. He was a tool."

The Taliban certainly know
That Obama would sure like to go
So to give him a push
Off the ol’ Hindu KushT
hey promise to send him some blow.

I find all this discussion quite fascinating. I especially appreciate Diane Ravitch's comments because she nails it for me. Education is about learning more than it is about teaching. Teachers need to be given help, to help their students to learn, not as we say in Australia "picked on". Ultimately it is up to the learners to develop the skills they need. Teachers can only 'teach' and that does not mean 'produce learned individuals'. Knowledge is the realm of expertise of the teacher, or should be, and of good techniques for learning. Skills lie in the realm of the learner, who is free to learn or not learn, become skilled or not. Teachers cannot 'teach' skills.

I wish the author of this post made a clear distinction between student achievement and student achievement GROWTH. In discussing ed reform, it is important to distinguish between these two things. As I understand it, the best predictor of student achievement is, as this author states, the student's family income. However, the best predictor of student achievement GROWTH is teacher quality.
As a high school teacher in a low-income community, it makes me physically ill everytime I read an education "expert" trying to downplay the importance of teacher quality. Yes, poverty affects student achievement. We know that. Thank you for reminding me how far behind my students are supposed to be. But the link between poverty and low academic achievement can be broken; I see it happen EVERY DAY IN MY CLASSROOM.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments