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Book Review: Timar on Gaining on the Gap

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Thomas B. Timar is today's guest blogger, reviewing Robert G. Smith, Alvin L. Crawley, Cheryl Robinson, Timothy Cotman Jr., Marty Swaim, and Palma Strand's book, Gaining on the Gap: Changing Hearts, Minds, and Practice (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011.)

This is the second of a set of paired reviews: Robert Smith reviewed Mr. Timar and Julie Maxwell-Jolly's edited volume, Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012), yesterday.

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Since the 1960s, eliminating disparities in educational opportunity, achievement, and attainment between African-American and Latino children on the one hand and white and many Asian children on the other has been a central and persistent policy objective of American education. Policymakers have acted on the premise that school desegregation, finance equalization, compensatory education, elaboration of legal rights, and an array of targeted interventions would eventually close the historically wide educational, social, and economic chasm that has separated those groups. Yet, the gap persists in spite of all the attention and effort that has been focused on it.

This volume, Gaining on the Gap, argues that perhaps we have been looking for solutions to the problem in the wrong places. The book demonstrates that narrowing the achievement gap has to build out from the school level. Since the problem is manifested in the schools, it only makes sense to start there and build out to the communities they serve and to the district offices that provide both the support that schools need and the connections to their communities. What the authors propose is that, for schools to take on the problem of the achievement gap, they must be willing to take on the difficult—and for that reason, generally ignored—problems of social relationships within schools.

The important contribution of this study of the Arlington, Va., public schools is that reform has to happen one school at a time. There are no magic solutions. It takes hard work. Each school is unique: The interpersonal dynamics among teachers, administrators, students, and their parents are unique. Any effort to make significant and meaningful change in teaching and learning has to reflect those characteristics.

While the book's focus is on the development of "cultural competence" as a way of overcoming what the authors perceive as pervasive racism in the schools, one could argue that what the authors call "cultural competence" is actually a proxy for social capital. Increasingly, studies of school improvement efforts have found social capital to be the critical element that makes or breaks such efforts. What the authors show us here is that developing strong relationships among teachers, parents, students, and administrators is essential to building effective schools. In the final analysis, it isn't about the kinds of interventions that policymakers have promulgated over the past 40 years, but building effective organizations on trust and mutual respect. The bottom line, as the study's authors put it, is in "valuing all human beings ... honoring the essential humanity of each person and each child."

The study offers important lessons for both education practitioners and policymakers. It gives practitioners a new perspective on understanding the achievement gap and ways of narrowing it. For policymakers, it provides insight into what states and the federal government may do to help schools in their reform efforts.

While I applaud the Arlington school system's efforts to mobilize parents, teachers, administrators, and the broader community to take on a very complicated and obdurate problem, I'm not convinced that it has made a significant difference in the Arlington public schools. According to information in the book, the achievement gap has not narrowed appreciably over time. While some scores did increase over time, on the whole they remain rather flat, and there is no significant convergence between minority and non-minority test scores. Finally, I've always been suspicious of reforms that rely on changing people's hearts and minds. It is possible and desirable to create organizations that respect all students and have high expectations for them. Moreover, to attribute the problem to racism both oversimplifies the problem and sells many dedicated educators short. To be sure, racism is an element of the achievement gap, as Norton Grubb points out in one of his chapters in our book. However, it is a mistake to attribute the persistence of the achievement gap to a single cause.


Thomas B. Timar is a professor of education policy and the director of the Center for Applied Policy in Education at the University of California, Davis.

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