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THOMPSON: Our Dumb World

Chart The McKinsey report, "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools," argues that America's GDP might be $2.3 trillion greater if the achievement gap disappeared after we read The Nation at Risk

The report resembles an Onion parody, displaying nuggets of information with the full glory of digital graphics while being literally absurd. McKinsey’s scatter-grams isolate three pairs of neighboring states with large achievement gap differences. Three pages later, hidden in a multi-colored display, is the best explanation for the gaps. The lagging states have far greater black child poverty rates. Who would have thunk it? Delaware’s rate, for instance, is 50% worse than Maryland's, a gap-closer of that chart. In another part of the study, however, Delaware is cited as one of the success stories in closing the achievement gap.

My favorite was a scatter-gram of 91 dots representing unnamed urban districts,

Economy_redo showing that around 20% had higher overall student achievement than their state, and around 25% had higher black student performance, which demonstrates ...?

These sorts of charts were accompanied by statements such as "gaps exist at every level in American education: among states, among districts, among schools ..., among classrooms ... This confirms what intuition would suggest ..." The obvious conclusion is that America has a wide variety of economic realities and a wildly diverse educational system with widely differing resources, standards, assessments, policies, and histories.  Instead, the report implies that these charts suggest instructional strategies that would reverse "avoidable" educational dysfunction. So according to those charts, we should repudiate the reforms that made gains in Boston, Austin and Atlanta?

The report occasionally tries to post-hole down to reality, presumably to better identify what works. A sentence here or there praises Union City or New Jersey or North Carolina. But the overwhelming amount of concrete information of better approaches to closing the achievement gap comes from two schools and four districts in Texas, all unnamed, and New York City. Some of the most flamboyant graphs demonstrate that, surprise!, 3rd graders with similar scores in New York City ended up with "graduation outcomes" that "varied greatly."

A closer reading shows that a 3rdgrader in the bottom quartile had a 13% chance of moving to the top 50%.  Thus, McKinsey continually condemned American schools for not increasing performance for children who brought learning deficits from home, but New York City was praised for a record which was no better. (Not mentioned was the bar graph of the lowest quartile of 3rd graders in 1999 who were more likely to drop out than to earn a Regents diploma.  The largest outcome was "still in school," raising questions about another dubious NYC claim, its supposedly growing graduation rate.)

Elsewhere, McKinsey proclaims "NYC ... has shown that the traditionally lowest achieving group, low-income blacks, can improve." But its most important statistic, 8th Grade reading, shows that their NAEP scores continue to decline.

Finally, McKinsey presents "a case for optimism" suggesting "relentless efforts to benchmark and implement what works." Had we only known it was so easy!

Finally, I don’t mean to imply that the Wow! Pow! Zap! nature of its graphics are the only reason to read McKinsey’s report. It also has plenty of literary jewels like, "Latino students in Ohio score the same as their white peers in 8 states and better than their white peers in 13 states."   So maybe Louisiana's position towards the top of the chart for closing the achievement gap suggests another strategy - keeping white scores down.

Enough already!  There is no point in seeking meaningful patterns in McKinsey's parade of the greatest quirks in educational data.- John Thompson


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