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Still a Bobo in Paradise

Meet the Status Quo. It includes the Chairman of the Board of the NAACP (Julian Bond), the former president of the Urban League (Hugh Price), a Nobel prize winning economist and expert on early childhood interventions (Jim Heckman), some of the country's most distinguished experts on urban poverty (William Julius Wilson, Christopher Jencks) and educational accountability (Helen Ladd), a well-known professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (T. Berry Brazelton), two former Surgeon Generals (Jocelyn Elders and Richard Carmona), Ernie Cortes (of the Industrial Areas Foundation), school practitioners like Debbie Meier, Ted Sizer, and Jim Comer who have spent their careers challenging the status quo, and too many other people to list here who have dedicated their lives to improving the lives of poor and minority children. And yes, David, they accept your apology.

I really do hate my permanent residence in the reality-based community, but at least half of the achievement gap that exists between black and white students - the fact that the average black 12th grader performs at about the 16th percentile of the white distribution (a gap of about 1 standard deviation)- cannot possibly be attributed to the K-12 schools. Why? The average black student enters kindergarten testing at about the 25 percentile of the white distribution in math (a gap of .663 standard deviations), and the 35th percentile of the white distribution in reading (a gap of .4 standard deviations). "Squeezing teachers," "dealing with teachers who don't teach," or "holding teachers feet to the fire," I'm sorry to say, are not going to address that gap. And between kindergarten and 12th grade, kids are only in school 22% of their waking hours. It turns out that poor students' slower rate of learning in the summer plays a significant role in increasing existing gaps.

Of course schools play a role in exacerbating these problems - no one said they don't - in particular because of the unequal distribution of teachers across schools. We can all acknowledge that this distribution of teachers is a partial legacy of contract rules - still in place in many districts - that gave preference to senior teachers. Both coalitions are concerned with attracting and retaining good teachers in hard to staff schools, and perhaps they can find some common ground there.

But it would be great if we grounded this discussion in some basic facts - facts that might include the current distribution of school effects, and how much of the achievement gap we could expect to see narrowed if we move a student from a below to an above average school (critical for the school choice question); how modest the effects of accountability have historically been on gaps (very little action at all on the black-white gap - Texas also comes to mind), and how more "vigorous accountability" will differ in ways that produce different outcomes; how much of the gap is a function of school-year versus summer learning; and how much of the gap is there when kids start school.

To those who scapegoat our public schools and teachers serving in high-poverty schools: Given the enormously disproportional amount of blame, shame, and ridicule they are subjected to, despite oftentimes heroic efforts, how is it that you expect to attract and keep strong teachers in these schools?

With merit pay? Well, we would all like more pay and I haven't the slightest doubt these teachers deserve it. But I believe teachers long far more for some appreciation and respect. It is the coporate/politicos who are obsessed with merit pay, not teachers.

But it would be great if we grounded this discussion in some basic facts - facts that might include the current distribution of school effects, and how much of the achievement gap we could expect to see narrowed if we move a student from a below to an above average school (critical for the school choice question)

This is an excellent idea. I'm glad someone understands how to analyze the issue.

The evidence is clear that schools can raise student performance enough all by themselves to eliminate the achievement gap (as defined under NCLB) by third grade. It's just a matter of improving how they teach. See Project Follow Through (N = 1804 - 2676) Effect sizes were generally at least a standadrd deviation in magnitude for math, reading, spelling, and language.

See also Becker, Teaching Reading and Language to the Disadvantaged—What We Have Learned from Research, Havard Educational Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, November 1977 for a good summary and commentary.

See also Adams, G. L., & Engelmann, S. (1996). Research on Direct Instruction: 25 years beyond DISTAR for a metanalysis subsequent research confirming the PFT research.

So this would be one within school intervention capable of eliminating the achievement gap between low-SES kids and their peers.

In fact, this is probably the only research validated intervention we know of that is capable of accomplishing this task. Practically everything that these coalitions are proposing has little tiny effect sizes that generally are not considered to be educationally significant. Most of what they are proposing hasn't even been research validated yet.

I think this grounds the discussion with some facts the coalitions forgot to mention (perhaps conveniently) in their manifestoes.

"how much of the achievement gap we could expect to see narrowed if we move a student from a below to an above average school"

Not much... See Catalyst Chicago's May 2008 magazine issue on Suburban Achievement.

"Wealthier districts like
Wheaton have attracted families,
in part, with the sterling
academic reputations of their
schools. Yet in a Catalyst Chicago
analysis of 2007 scores on
state reading tests, Wheaton
posts one of the widest
achievement gaps between
white and minority elementary
students in the six-county
metro Chicago area"


This glaring achievement
gap shows that once-homogenous,
solidly middle-class districts
are struggling to meet the
instructional and cultural
needs of African-American
and Latino students, many of
whom come from low-income

As far as I can tell educators have been "taking aim" at the achievement gap for the last 30 years with almost zero movement on a National Scale. You would think in all that time at least one school would of hit the bullseye (or at least got close to it) at least once, even if on accident.

I am getting rather skeptical about calls for any more studies, especially when it seems like schools don't even use the data already out there.

I have four school age children and every year, I ask each one of their teachers (six teachers for my middle schooler) if they have heard of Project Follow Through... not a single one has ever said yes. I also ask about their views on constructism vs Direct Instruction, and have only ever received one answer that even remotely showed they were aware of the differences on something more than a superficial level.

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