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Bruno: What If The Achievement Gap Can't Be Closed?

4683685_2941e9ce00Go read this post from Kathleen Porter-Magee on the reading gap between affluent and lower-income students, then come back here. Her point is a straightforward one that is nevertheless often neglected in discussions about reading achievement: we cannot close reading comprehension gaps without closing background knowledge and vocabulary gaps.

Crucially, Porter-Magee acknowledges a more subtle point that education reformers too often ignore or do not realize. As she says, "we may  never completely close the gap" in reading ability between richer and poorer students because the former have out-of-school lives that are much more vocabulary-rich.

I think it's worth being just a bit more explicit about this, so here goes: unless we want or expect to make schools for less-fortunate students  substantially and systematically more effective than schools for more-affluent students, we should not expect achievement gaps to ever close completely.

As the saying goes, this isn't politics, it's math. Even if every student acquires vocabulary at an equal rate during their time in school - something that is profoundly unlikely given the extent to which greater background knowledge facilitates faster knowledge acquisition - it will still be the case that students' out-of-school lives are not equally rich in educational terms. Students of privilege will still be exposed to more - and more sophisticated - vocabulary-building experiences outside of school, and reading gaps will persist.

This may be especially true of reading and vocabulary, but the logic applies to varying degrees across the subject areas. You can have inferior schools for more-privileged students or you can have persistent achievement gaps, but you have to pick your poison.

This is not to say that improving the reading achievement of economically disadvantaged students is not possible or extremely important. Read Kathleen's piece and follow her links to see how schools could do some of that work better.

At the same time, clarity about the causes and likely persistence of achievement gaps can help us understand the limits of education reform proposals that focus exclusively on schools. In some cases it may be more productive to think of young people not so much as "students" but as children who live much of their lives, and do much of their learning, outside of a classroom. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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This is very astute. I have been thinking about a couple of related problems this morning, data that shows that tolerance for marijuana use is rising among our younger teens (50% of eighth graders think marijuana use is not a problem, according to the USA Today today) and the awful killings at Sandy Hook and proposals for what might be done to avoid repeating them. In my usual way, I have been thinking about them in comparative context. I know that Sweden has the best child well-being scores in the world, from a report done a few years back by the OECD, and was thinking about how Sweden addresses these issues. It is well for us to remember that school, while remaining the focus of our children's lives, is only a (central) part of it. The expectation that our schools alone, along with the "magic of the market", should solve all our social problems was central to the errors of the Bush administration's domestic policy failures.

Based on the question you asked in your post title, one can only assume you must be racist, no?

@Bruce - I think part of the issue is that it's easier to focus on schools (at least conceptually) because they are something virtually all students have in common. Trying to think about their out-of-school lives is hard and messy because their out-of-school lives are so diverse. So in fairness to the school-obsessed, school is more convenient to think about than not-school.

@John - It's probably true that there are some people who can do no more than assume that, yes.

John's thoughtless question deserves condemnation. There are many countries in the eastern hemisphere that are essentially single race and that struggle with these issues, which can be described as class-based rather than race-based. In the case of our own nation (and others), the issue is more usefully described as based in culture, in the sense of the culture of the home, than in race, although those matters are often linked. Making bad (in both the senses of illogical and ungenerous) assumptions about one's interlocutors and then posting them publicly on their blogs is vicious. As a citizen I am concerned when I find so many people active in education who lack common courtesy and professionalism in their discourse, for I fear this may rub off on students.


Actually, your assumptions deserve condemnation. My point is precisely that edreformers are the ones who suggest, REPEATEDLY, that if one questions gap closure you must be racist.

It is a disgusting ed-reform meme, and I was pointing out the INSANITY of their argument by suggesting it applied here, when it clearly doesn't.

The only thing I should apologize for is your inability to understand my sarcasm. However, you quick leap to condemn me, well, that's another issue altogether now.

John, I apologize; you are correct, I did not catch your sarcasm. Paul's response to you may also have been tinged with irony, where I thought he was dismissing a stranger's one-line personal attack, and deserved backing.

My only criticism now, which isn't particular to you, is the Twitter-like one-line discourse we are steadily becoming accustomed to. Publishing one line of sarcasm invites misinterpretation. Nonetheless, you and I are actually on the same side on this issue, I misinterpreted you, and I apologize.

John, is this you?

Can you get the URL for a longer piece of your own writing, and link it to your sign-in when you comment? This conversation has inspired me. I'll go ahead and comment, without irony, although I think your one-liner opened new insights in this discussion.

The "achievement gap" in actual education outcomes is closed all the time, in individual cases. I know at least two (of the maybe six people) following this conversation are teachers, and you know the triumph and individuality of each breakthrough student you've ever served. (Sorry, that might have been a little ironic)

Nonetheless, the statistical construct remains robust, for all the reasons Bruno mentioned. You should realize that the data-driven policies imposed by accountability legislation willfully misuse statistics in a fundamental and deadly way. Statistical averages don't have any predictive power whatsoever for individual data points! Individual teachers and students have to break the trend, and we can. Meanwhile, the factors that really generate it need to be addressed.

The problem has never been race but always class. Afflent black people's kids do fine. Poor white people's kids do badly. End of stort.

"Afflent black people's kids do fine. Poor white people's kids do badly."

Wrong. Poor white kids do better than affluent black kids.

Where are there even data that cross race with income that don't rely on clumsy measures like FRP eligibility?

Affluent black people's kids do not do fine. Poor white children outscore upper-middle class black children. Higher income correlates with better academic performance among all ethnic groups, but race has an independent effect in all income groups, too. This is true whether the children attend one-race schools or mixed race schools. The cause is not known.

Paul--the SAT used to routinely break down scores by race and income until the early 90s, when the rich blacks/poor whites discrepancy was noted, and now they leave that data off.

But only 6% of African Americans score over 600 on any section of the SAT, a percentage that would be much larger if wealthy black kids were scoring as well as white and asian kids.

Taking action on this issue is critical.

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