Friday, September 23, 2011

Let's not focus on the achievement gap

A thought-provoking essay in the current issue of National Affairs by the prolific and sardonic Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls for a retreat from education reform's long-held focus on closing the achievement gap. Hess feels the federal No Child Left Behind Act has, ironically, become "education policy that has shortchanged many children." His thesis is that by focusing on improving achievement scores of the lowest performing subgroups of students, opportunities for reform that would also benefit the other students have been passed up. The result is that many parents, educators, principals, and elected officials see school reform as inapplicable to the average- or highly-performing students who make up the majority of children in most classrooms across the country.

Which begs the question--if most children in the country are, in fact, being served pretty well by their public schools (and there can be strong arguments made that children who are white, or female, or upper class, or suburban are served well enough by public schools), then why should the adults who care for and educate them want to reform their schools? Should education reform affect change throughout the system or should it focus more narrowly on those students poorly served by public schooling?

Hess puts himself firmly in the camp of reformers desiring wide-scale change in the nation's public education system. But there are certainly other schools of thought. Until recently, Wisconsin's school reform history exemplified reform targeting the lowest-performing students in the lowest-performing schools by providing options mostly for low-income, urban students. When Governor Walker came into office and expressed a need to reform labor relations laws applicable to all school districts in the state, as opposed to urban districts only, and to support an expansion of the private school choice program beyond Milwaukee, he ushered in a new era of systemic reform.

A new debate is now waging in our state. Do we need to rethink how we're delivering education services to all students, or should we remain focused on the students falling furthest behind? Hess argues that even the best schools are producing graduates suited only to thrive in a 19th century, or perhaps 20th century, world. For him, the need for systemic reform arises from the 21st century reforms the world is experiencing in nearly all other aspects, from technology to the economy to governance. He concludes, "[D]eciding that school is the place where we teach poor children to read and do math — and that everyone else will be left alone to figure out the rest — seems an impoverished and ultimately self-defeating agenda for education reform in the 21st century."

There are still a significant number of education policy thinkers and reformers who are not ready to conclude the entire system needs an overhaul, however. Just this week, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its "genius grants" to an economist whose work focuses on the achievement gap, for example.

In places like Milwaukee, where most students are poor, most are minority, and overall achievement scores are low, the debate over targeted versus systemic reform may be beside the point. But as more and more suburban school districts experience growth in their low-income, minority, and/or immigrant student populations, and see test scores drop, the debate is very relevant.

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