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Do Education Reformers Suffer From 'Achievement Gap Mania'? / Excellent Education For Everyone

'The Achievement Gap,' via...

Are education policymakers so focused on the poorest-performing students in the name of closing the achievement gap that the highest-performing students suffer? Two influential edu-wonks have sparred over this question in a nearly two week-long battle of blogs.

You haven’t been following, you say? Don’t worry. We’ve summarized.

The opening salvo came from Frederick Hess, the American Enterprise Institute’s director of education policy. On September 21, he argued in National Affairs policymakers’ “achievement-gap mania” had meant No Child Left Behind now hampers the best-performing students:

The kinds of teaching and support that can help disadvantaged students acquire the skills and knowledge that they did not receive at home are often superfluous or inappropriate for more advantaged children. In this way, gap-closing can transform from a strategy that lifts up the least proficient students into one that slows up the most proficient.

For example, Hess contends students are being pushed into Advanced Placement classes in the interest of closing the achievement gap, regardless of their aptitude in the subject matter. “Such efforts can dilute instructional quality… and distract attention from advanced students,” Hess says.

The same day, RiShawn Biddle — an education commentator and former editorial writer at the Indianapolis Star — took to his blog and penned an open letter. “Dear Rick Hess: There is Nothing Wrong with ‘Achievement Gap Mania’,” the title read. Essentially, he argued a rising tide lifts all boats:

Hess attempts to argue that the focus on the achievement gap has “shortchanged many children”. But he can’t prove that in any compelling way. What can be proved is this: American public education does an abysmal job of educating all children…

When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by American public education — including for young black, white and Latino men — we are improving education for our high-performing students as well.

And back-and-forth ensued. Biddle, who spoke highly of other work Hess had done, said Hess’s views on NCLB were contrarian. Hess said that wasn’t fair. Biddle responded, saying he was using Hess’s own words. You get the idea.

So take a look at Hess and Biddle’s arguments, and weigh in yourself in our comments section:  Who’s right in this debate? Does a rising tide lift all boats, as Biddle suggests? Or does Hess’s argument bring up serious flaws in our current education policy mindset?


  • Guest #2

    The problem is that Biddle is picking a fight over an argument that Hess never tried to make. Hess never said that increasing teacher accountability and encouraging high-performing teachers to remain in the classroom is causing the problem, which is Biddle’s claim. Hess is claiming that the resources and personnel now tasked with helping students pass standardized tests had to come from somewhere…and that “somewhere” is generally our high-achieving students. States and schools have resorted to diluting and lowering standards in order to ensure that more students meet that standard, be it AP requirements, graduation requirements, or standardized testing requirements. That doesn’t help lift ANYONE up. Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats…but that’s making the assumption that what’s happening is a “rising tide.” We’re not “raising a water level” with NCLB — we’re filling in a gap. My analogy is that we’re doing that by shoveling some dirt off of the tallest pile (taking resources from our highest-achieving kids) and throwing it into the gap.

    I am a teacher in a high-performing, suburban school district and I agree with Hess. Entire school schedules are changed and personnel and resources are being diverted to meet the needs of the 10% of students (in my district) who are not passing ISTEP at the expense of the 90% of students who ARE. As soon as a kid passes ISTEP, it’s assumed that the child will be “fine” with little or no attention being paid to possible enrichment or acceleration for that child. Biddle needs to examine the fact that our highest-achieving young black, white, and Latino men are now being ill-served by the changes made in the name of “filling the achievement gap.”

    • StateImpact Indiana

      I appreciate the point! And for picking apart my boiling-down of Biddle’s argument as a “rising tide.” What do you make of the state using numbers of kids passing AP exams in their letter grades for schools, which they announced they would today?

      • Guest #2

        Well, your summary of Biddle’s argument is correct…it’s his argument that is wrong (even if he didn’t describe it himself as a “rising tide,” that’s still what he’s trying to say). I remember Biddle all too well from his IndyStar days and don’t agree with him any more NOW than I did back then!

        I actually disagree with the AP issue because it discriminates against smaller, rural school systems that have fewer opportunities to offer AP classes due to smaller graduating classes. A small high school can’t offer the same number of AP courses that a large school does — it simply isn’t an effective use of resources to offer a course that only a handful of students would be interested in or qualified to take, especially as resources continue to be tight. My fear is that schools will seek to increase their number of students passing AP exams by diluting the curriculum and decreasing the prerequisites (hoping to attract more students and simply crossing their fingers that more students will “pass” as a result), and it will again be about throwing resources at those kids who are “borderline” when it comes to passing the AP test and not necessarily about continuing to stretch and push the highest kids. Any time you set ANY “bar” at a certain level, no matter how high, and place all of your emphasis on simply getting kids to clear the bar, you’re ignoring your highest jumpers.

        Of course, I happen to think that using ANY type of criteria to attempt to “compare” one school in this state against another school is ridiculous, unless you include a metric that allows schools to be compared only against other schools with similar student populations.

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