Bruno: Raising Achievement Doesn't Close Gaps (Petrilli)
I'm glad to see Michael Petrilli doing a guest stint over at Bridging Differences and I'm especially glad he dedicates some of his first column inches to defending the importance of knowledge in schools, even for very young children.
Unfortunately, he also commits an all-too-common error, conflating increasing absolute levels of academic achievement with closing achievement gaps between subgroups of students.
It is probably true, as Petrilli says, that it is important to expose even very young students to a broad, knowledge-rich curriculum. Knowledge deficits, including vocabulary deficits, play a major role in suppressing the achievement of many of the least fortunate students.
It is also quite possibly the case that schools serving the least-privileged students are especially likely to lower their standards for students (e.g., by using hand-wavy explanations about what is "developmentally appropriate") or otherwise cut subjects like science and history out of the curriculum.
So far so good. Read on to see where I think Petrilli goes wrong.
(Though Deborah Meier doesn't mention this in her reply, it is more than fair to point out here that many education reform policies of the sort favored by Petrilli have contributed to the aforementioned narrowing of the curriculum. Unsurprisingly, singling out math and reading for high-stakes testing encourages schools to allocate instructional time away from non-tested subjects.)
So it could very well be that by following Petrilli's advice schools could increase achievement. And if schools with the lowest-achieving students are most likely to be ignoring his advice, then they may be artificially exacerbating the achievement gaps we all love to hate.
The problem is that, contrary to Petrilli's framing, none of this has much to do with schools closing achievement gaps.
After all, even if every low-income school in the country suddenly adopted Petrilli's (and my!) advice to prioritize breadth-of-knowledge, what do we think they'll be doing at middle- and high-income schools?
Narrowing - let alone closing - gaps between the most- and least-advantaged students only works if the latter are receiving some sort of intervention that the former are not. My plan - and I assume Petrilli's - would not involve discouraging wealthier schools from also providing a knowledge-rich curriculum.
As Petrilli himself discusses, knowledge gaps exist mostly because more-privileged students accumulate considerably more knowledge outside of school than their less-fortunate peers.
I would add that another contributing factor is the fact that students who come to school with more knowledge can also probably accumulate additional knowledge more rapidly while they are at school.
What this means is that while we can and should worry about increasing the absolute level of achievement of students in all schools, those conversations are mostly tangential to worries about achievement gaps.