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Book Review: Smith on Narrowing the Achievement Gap

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Robert G. Smith, an associate professor at George Mason University, reviews Thomas B. Timar and Julie Maxwell-Jolly's edited volume, Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012) in this guest post.

Mr. Smith's post is the first in a paired review. In an upcoming post, Mr. Timar will review Gaining on the Gap: Changing Hearts, Minds, and Practice (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011), which was authored by Mr. Smith, Alvin L. Crawley, Cheryl Robinson, Timothy Cotman Jr., Marty Swaim, and Palma Strand.

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Thomas B. Timar and Julie Maxwell-Jolly's edited volume Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times offers a collection of chapters written by scholars that contain a range of perspectives on how educators are shrinking achievement gaps and why the gulf remains between the goal and its accomplishment. Originally written for the California P-16 Council, the chapters have been revised to speak to the entire country. I believe they do.

Narrowing Achievement_hires.jpg The editors, who also wrote individual chapters, and the contributors share a number of perspectives. First, there appears to be agreement that the nationwide drive to narrow achievement gaps has essentially failed, resulting in only small improvements across the country in the size of the gaps. Two, the authors hold in low regard, and see as largely ineffectual, the regimen of testing and sanctions that accompanied the policies of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act and the initiatives piled on top by the Obama administration's Race to the Top. Additionally, some of the authors see NCLB and RTT as actually exerting an effect on the gap opposite to the intent of the policies. Third, and most important, there appears to be agreement that current policies and practices designed to narrow the achievement gap are doomed to fail because such policies and practices assume that schools can close the gap on their own. The authors avow that schools cannot do it alone.

During the 12 years that I served as a local school district superintendent in Virginia, I seldom, if ever, in addressing faculty and school-community members suggested that closing the achievement gap was a shared enterprise between schools and community members or others. I feared that doing so would encourage the common response that achievement gaps associated with race, ethnicity, income, or dominant language were the result of poverty, racism, or social inequities and that schools were largely powerless to do anything about them.

I believe we have learned, as have the distinguished authors of this book, that we can do much in schools to counteract the effects of poverty, classism, and racism by working on issues related to four factors: expectations of teachers, parents, and students of student achievement; quality of instruction and relationships in the schools; access to educational opportunities and rigor; and parent and community involvement. We cannot be successful, as most of the authors of Narrowing the Gap suggest, in this regard without the full participation of our families, community members, and community agencies. It is equally as wrongheaded to hold schools solely responsible for solving this problem as it is to argue that schools can do little about it because the source of the problem exists beyond the school building.

The solutions tendered in Narrowing the Gap vary in emphasis, depending upon the perspectives and disciplines of the authors. However, they all seem to agree that the current direction needs to change from the existing top-down series of national initiatives, rewards, and penalties, to approaches that:

  • allow greater accommodation to local conditions;

  • place a greater emphasis on the generation of individual school and school-district solutions focused on changing school culture and fostering high quality instruction;

  • reduce the emphasis on the use of shallow standardized tests and facile accountability systems;

  • and, fashion neighborhood and community initiatives that make reaching the goal a collective and high-priority venture.

Educators and community leaders will find much in this book with which to agree, disagree, and ponder. It is worth reading.

Robert G. Smith is an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He served for 44 years as an educator in K-12 public schools, including 12 years as the superintendent of the Arlington, Va., public schools.

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