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Bruno: Raising Achievement Doesn't Close Gaps (Petrilli)

3434689203_afe971eab4I'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.

The distinction between raising achievement and closing gaps is glossed over all too often, but is one that is crucial for thinking clearly about education reform. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

Comments

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This is intelligent and well done. Indeed, we will have to decide, and probably sooner rather than later (since it is becoming clear that as societies adopt visions of education focused on standards-based assessments, they increase, rather than reduce, socioeconomic class differences), which we value more, closing achievement gaps or increasing the aggregate amount of knowledge in society. Unusually, perhaps, I have opted for the latter, and so continue to find the unexpected result in the Sutton Trust report on "Choice and Selection in School Admissions" (http://www.alansmithers.com/reports/Choice_And_Selection.pdf) to be perhaps the most important piece of educational research I have ever encountered: if we want a more knowledgeable society, we need to use selective admissions for different school types in secondary education, and we are better off if this happens with government backing rather than without it, for in the latter case the selection happens on the basis of family finances rather than on individual student drive and hard work.

"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."

Why in the world would you think that's happening? Do you think that affluent kids are clamouring for more basic skills instruction? Petrilli makes the common sense assumption that it is low-skilled students where "reformers'" goal, despite their denial, is raisng high school graduates' performance from, say 8th to 10th grade, (his estimate not, mine) Check NAEP scores. They are failing even at that.

D.C. and other exemplars of reform see a stagnation in low performing students, with the increases being at the top - suggesting gentrification. Surely you don't think affluent parents are moving to the inner city so they can get more of the worksheet-driven educational malpractice that is being dumped on poor kids. As Karen Lewis says, reformers want their own kids to be masters of the universe, while they are turning poor schools into training grounds for Walmart greeters.

Or, do you have evidence to the contrary?

Finally, when you say "prioritize breadth-of-knowledge," are you saying kids need a content-rich curriculum, in which we agree, but which is the opposite of the predicatable - and documented - result of high-stakes testing? Or are you advocating for an education for poor kids that is a mile wide and an inch deep? After all, that seems to be the prime result of test-driven "reform?" And Petrilli is one of the few "reformers" honest enough to argue that that would necessarily be bad.

@Bruce - Thanks. I struggle with how to improve secondary education. I can certainly see a case for greater choice and/or flexibility at that level.

@John - Evidence of what? I'm not totally sure what you're getting at - As I said, I don't really know whether what Petrilli describes is happening disproportionately in low-income schools; I could make an a priori case in either direction.

I also don't know what you mean about test-driven reform promoting a mile-wide-inch-deep curriculum. The point is precisely that heavily-used math and reading tests narrow - not widen - the curriculum.

We don't yet know (if we ever will) what intervention would entirely close the gap. So in the meantime, anything that will raise achievement across the board, for low-income children and better-off children, is a good thing. Some of the disadvantage that lower-income children experience after they leave school is positional: the better-off kids have better access just because they've gotten more out of school. But some is based on absolute levels of knowledge and skill that are below what can give you a foothold on economic security; if more kids can get over that barrier, it's all to the good.

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