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In Massachusetts Schools, Only Perfection Will Do

Despite its well deserved reputation for having the best schools in the country, Massachusetts is nevertheless obsessed with its widening achievement gaps  ("What Are Massachusetts Public Schools Doing Right?" The Atlantic, June).  I wonder why the state can't enjoy its success instead of flagellating itself over the matter?  I say that because I don't believe it's possible to eliminate differences in performance between students, whether as individuals or as members of groups. We can try, but they will always exist.

Massachusetts achieved its reputation by establishing high standards in 1993, along with rigorous accountability and charter schools.  It also went on to double its funding of public education by 2000.  As a result, only 2 percent of high school students drop out, and math and reading scores rank No. 1 nationally.  Moreover, students perform near the top on tests of international competition.  Those are notable accomplishments to be proud of.

But the initial narrowing of achievement gaps did not continue.  That doesn't surprise me in the least.  Even the best schools cannot  completely overcome what transpires in the lives of students in their homes and neighborhoods.  Yet Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Tommy Chang attributes the problem to separating students by ability in the fourth grade in ways that often correlate with race and linguistic background.

I don't agree.  As long as students are allowed to move from one track to another depending on their progress, I fail to understand why such a policy is the villain.  In fact, I maintain that ability tracking allows teachers to be more effective by designing lessons specifically geared to the needs and interests of their students.  Other countries with renowned education systems have been tracking for decades.  Only in this country is it considered anathema.  

The more likely explanation for the widening achievement gap in Massachusetts are external factors that no state can fully control.  Wraparound services, such as those provided by the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, can make a big difference, but even they fell short of all their goals. Yet we expect an entire state to do so.  Let's get real.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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