Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On the Implausibility of Closing Both Achievement Gaps at Once

Alexander Russo recently posted about the imbalance in the online education debates, where the loud and rude are drowning out other voices. Whitney Tilson responded in agreement, and then invited links to his website, promising to "blast out" the posts of "reformers in the trenches". As a reformer who has been ejected from the trenches, I'm not sure that I qualify; but I looked around his website to gain a greater familiarity with his views, and am writing this post largely in response to his invitation.

Mr. Tilson is closely connected to the KIPP school in the South Bronx and to Teach For America, and his online YouTube video and the trailer for his documentary repeat the familiar themes about American schools "failing" children of color while schools like KIPP's achieve, in contrast, nearly miraculous results (although his video, from 2009, uses data that have subsequently been shown to have greatly exaggerated the success rate of KIPP graduates in obtaining four-year degrees), so I take his to be the standard view of education reform in his diagnosis of our problems and his support for proposed solutions. The video shows him to be stunningly inaccurate in his use of his summations of data, but this is not the main point I want to dwell on. Instead, I want to focus on the two gaps that he correctly identifies, and the implausibility of any likely success coming from the strategy of closing our domestic achievement gap as a means to closing our international one.

Mr. Tilson correctly conveys the bad news that black and Hispanic twelfth graders are, on average, only achieving what our white eighth graders achieve on average on our National Assessment of Educational Progress. He also correctly notes our dismal mathematics and disappointing science scores on the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (although he wrongly alleges that our reading scores show the same thing, when they are clearly highest of the three for us and somewhat above the international average). His heart appears more motivated by the prospect of closing our domestic gap, which we have inherited from a racist past and from the differential development of our planet, than by closing the international one; and he may well hope that success in closing the one will help close the other. But in this I think he is badly mistaken; and because he is influential, that mistake is likely to have harmful effects throughout the reform movement.

The reasons he is wrong, as I believe, are principally two: (1) the charter schools he supports typically pursue the low domestic standards that render our entire nation's K-12 system uncompetitive, even if they provide marketing data that supports the institutional goals of charter management organizations and the mainstream of the charter school "movement"; and (2) opportunities for developing higher achievers who could be truly internationally competitive are being lost through school district neglect. The Common Core standards that many of us had been hoping would lead us out of this inferior status will not do so, at least in math or in any of the other non-English subjects, and not in English either unless we ditch our truncated, inauthentic, cheapskate approach to assessing writing.

And while my trustees and I have developed a charter for a school that really could compete, we have been unable to get it authorized by traditional districts that fear losing any more students, and so our brightest young prospects too often face a choice: shell out for America's independent school sector, which is very competitive on an international basis, or be ignored in otherwise ballyhooed public school districts that are steadily being revealed as being both overrated and unprepared to change.

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