Why the Achievement Gap Has Little to do with Students

We can’t?

Here we are in 2012 having passed two major educational acts in the last 47 years and not only has the achievement gap between economic classes increased, but our ‘solutions’ are making that gap grow exponentially faster than it would without governmental intervention.

I won’t bore you with data that is easily found by typing ‘achievement gap’ into Google, but I do want to clearly articulate the cyclical process that fosters inequities in schools.

  • Federal Grants and Aid: Every year, millions of dollars of the education budget (check the Department of Education for exact numbers) are tagged for special programs designed to supplement state budgets in low income, poorly performing, ethnic minority, rural, urban, etc districts that just can’t seem to raise those achievement scores. Politicians say the poor performance is because of lack of funding (see the post entitled Why Isn’t My Money as Good as Theirs? )so the government’s answer is to throw more money at it.
    • How we undermine it: There are little to no directions for how federal monies should be used in schools. There are a few clear rules stating that the money is to be spent only on students for whom it is intended (so if you aren’t classified as Title I, please don’t attend this special breakfast). But for the most part, school administrators and staff have zero clue about the purpose of these grants or how to effectively use the money to enhance learning outcomes. As a result, most of the money ends up being spent on food to attract parents to school events or on educational materials that are never integrated into the state designed curriculum.
    • The longterm effects: We are wasting millions of dollars every year that the general population thinks should magically improve test scores. When we waste money, the government snatches it back and gives the school district a title like ‘failing’ or ‘at-risk’ and threatens state intervention.  Now, the school doesn’t have the funding to pay as many teachers, have extracurriculars, go on field trips, or purchase enough text books for every student. In effect, we are punishing the students who truly may have benefitted from the extra money in the budget because we wrote a weak, unclear, un-researched piece of policy that no one knew how to enact. We give, then we take away. But who cares when you aren’t the one whose school no longer has a free/reduced lunch program that enables you to eat what may be your only meal of the day.
  • Teacher Qualifications: We would like teachers to have at least a Bachelor’s degree in their content area to be classified as ‘highly qualified’.
    • How we undermine it: Currently, almost every state has Alternative Licensure Programs wherein new classroom teachers do not have to attend a formal Teacher Education Program to receive licensure; they can instead attend ‘workshops’ (in some programs, these last as little as 6 weeks) and work toward licensure within their first 1-5 years of classroom teaching (the exact time varies by state).
    • The long-term effects: Teachers who are not as ‘highly qualified’ (i.e. participated in an alternative licensure program) are last to be hired. Last to be hired teachers are often hired in schools that can’t afford to be picky. Schools that can’t afford to be picky are those schools that are dilapidated, overcrowded, under resourced, measure poorly on state standards, are in unsafe areas, and serve ethnic minorities, non-native English speakers, and students from low income families. In other words, we send the least qualified and least prepared teachers to the schools most in need of ‘highly qualified’ teachers. But don’t worry, we’ve promised to Leave No Child Behind—as long as they happen to attend the school on the right side of the tracks.
  • Increased Accountability: NCLB placed a heavy emphasis on standardized testing. That emphasis is followed with a pay for performance ‘incentive’ for teachers (which school districts can choose to opt out of).  In other words, teachers whose students do well (i.e. score ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’) on their end of year tests, will receive a pay bonus. Those teachers whose students do not do well may lose their jobs.  In what other field are people assessed based on others’ performance?  Even medical doctors make patients sign waivers that basically say: if you don’t follow my aftercare instructions, I am not liable. Teachers don’t have those forms.
    • How we undermine it: With such weighty consequences for poor test scores, a lot of superintendents and principals are demanding that teachers spend at least 1 hour a week on test preparation per subject, beginning in September. This means that over the course of an academic year, at least 25 hours of content instruction is replaced with taking multiple choice practice tests. And in the month leading up to the test, teachers are often prohibited to do anything but test preparation.
    • The long-term effects: In our already rushed academic year, our students are receiving less, not more, content instruction. As a result, we are performing worse on standardized tests than ever before. Schools with high test scores are not schools who dedicate one hour a week to test prep; they are schools with challenging curricula and strong pedagogical practices.

Maybe at some point we will stop trying to fix the symptoms and instead address the causes of learning disparities. But that’d be too much like right.

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3 comments on “Why the Achievement Gap Has Little to do with Students

  1. […] gap and equalize learning outcomes across racial and income groups. I call ‘bull’ on that (see Why the Achievement Gap Has Little to do with Students for why I disagree with current reform efforts). Their ideas are nothing but injections aimed at […]

  2. […] I’ve commented multiple times on my feelings about so much emphasis placed on standardized tests (why the achievement gap has little to do with students, the miseducation of generations) instead of being placed on the teaching and learning process. The […]

  3. […] Why the Achievement Gap has Little to do with Students  This post rounds out my list. The achievement gap will continue to be an issue, but few people understand what drives it. I am quite proud of my breakdown of variables contributing to the achievement gap. […]

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