Friday, July 24, 2009

The wrong solution to the achievement gap

There's a front page Metro Section article in today's Oregonian about how the Tualatin-Tigard School District is focusing anew on the achievement gap.

OK, fine. The achievement gap is without question the biggest problem in public schools today. Why is it the most pressing issue? Because if a large gap in achievement persists between kids in low income families (who are disproportionately minority) and middle and higher-income families, it calls into question the very premise of public schooling in the America.

The great promise (indeed, the central premise) of public schools is that it says to the people: "No matter the circumstance of your birth, whether you were born into a family of great wealth or of humble immigrants, the public schools will afford you the opportunity to become part of the great story of America."

But for the last 40 years, the public schools have increasingly failed to live up to this promise. And if it indeed cannot deliver on its very reason for existing, doesn't that beg the question of why we have public schools in the first place?

The fact is, we don't need a system of government-operated schools in order to educate the well off in society. The whole purpose of public schools is their role leveling outcomes. If they fail at that, why indeed have public schools?

Any time you hear an excuse from an educator explaining poor school performance on the socioeconomic status of the students, what you are hearing is an educator implicitly admitting that the very premise that justifies public schools is wrong!

Now, back to Tigard-Tualatin School District's recent effort at tackling their achievement gap. I can confidently predict that what they are doing will have absolutely ZERO effect on the problem. With 100% certainty. I will take any bet.

Read the story - the school district is asking the wrong questions because they are operating from the wrong premise about what is causing the problem. Their assumption is that the problem stems from insufficient racial and ethnic awareness on the part of the teaching staff. Indeed, they are basically saying the teachers are racist because they treat behaviors of different ethnic groups differently. So the solution, they think, involves sensitivity training for the teachers, so they adjust their treatment of minority students to rid themselves of their cultural bias.

In other words, they are basically saying the district's 90% white staff is racist. They point to different disciplinary rates between white and minority kids as evidence of racial bias. So they are having a "conversation about race," which they are pretending will raise the consciousness of the district's staff in a way that the achievement gap will disappear. And now they are all patting themselves on the back for having these "tough" conversations.

Wrong culprit. Wrong solution. Politically correct? Yes. Assuages their white guilt? You bet. Gives them accolades in their professional communities? Absolutely. Going to reduce the achievement gap? Not a chance.

If you want to reduce the achievement gap, you have to attack the cause of the problem. It's not caused by racism of the teaching staff.

One thing you might want to do, if you were really interested in reducing the gap more than you were interested in making some politically correct point on racism, is to find schools that have actually succeeded in eliminating the gap, and see what they do differently.

Nowhere in anything Tigard Tualatin is doing have they asked the question: "Hey, who has actually eliminated the gap? What did they do?"

The good news is that this question HAS been asked and answered. But the answer is one that our school leaders don't much like, because it completely flies in the face of the approach being taken by Tigard-Tualatin and the rest of the education establishment.

Back in 2002, the nation's pre-eminent scholar on racial progress in America wrote a book called "No Excuses - Closing the Racial Gap in Learning." The author is Abigail Thernstrom, who is currently the Vice-Chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

In the book, Thernstrom looked at the academic achievement history of different racial and ethnic groups and drilled down to tease out the reasons for the disparity. Then she actually analyzed schools that have eliminated the achievement gap to see what they did differently from the rest of the public schools. Her findings were an indictment of the Tigard-Tualatin approach to the problem.

Thernstrom's findings were basically rejected by the education establishment because they contradicted their most fervently held attitudes and assumptions on culture and race - assumptions that are reflected in the Tigard-Tualatin effort.

Basically, this line of thinking says that our school kids come from many different races and cultures, and it is up to the educators to adjust their curriculum and teaching methods in order to accomodate the differences among these cultures.

Thernstrom's research showed that this approach will do nothing to raise the achievement of minority children. Why?

OK, brace yourself. Cover your child's ears, because what I am about to relate to you is politically incorrect heresy. I'm warning you. You are about to have your cultural relativism sensibilities trampled upon:

Thernstrom showed, through painstaking research on the academic achievement history of different ethic and racial groups going back through U.S. history, that "When it comes to academic achievement, all cultures are not created equal."

Imagine uttering this sentence in the Tigard-Tualatin "conversations on race." Heresy indeed. Thernstrom goes further. In her study of schools that have actually eliminated the gap, guess how they did it?

They changed the child's culture as it relates to academic achievement.

Imagine suggesting, in these Tigard-Tualatin workshops, that it is the child's cultural attitude that must adjust to the school, not the school's culture that must adjust to the child. I'm guessing a person suggesting such a thing would be reprimanded.

Yet that is exactly what the research shows. It is 180 degrees different than what the prevailing thinking is among educrats in the achievement gap issue. Which is why is not just rejected - it is summarily ignored. The go out of their way to avoid confronting this issue. I would guarantee you that you would be hard pressed to find a single person in the Tigard-Tualatin School District who has ever even heard of Abigail Thernstrom, much less read her book.

And this is not some fringe person - she and her husband Stephen are the nation's pre-eminent scholars on the U.S. racial experience. They co-authored the seminal book on racial progress in America, called America in Black & White, back in the mid 1990's. They are both Harvard based.
The education establishment actively excludes the conclusions and recommendations from their research from being heard, much less considered. I have a personal story to relate on this front.

In 2003, Abigail Thernstrom was coming to Portland to give a speech about her achievement gap book. I had met her some months previous at a conference, having already read both her books, and I struck up a conversation with her. That evolved into a friendship.

It just so happened that her visit was coinciding with a state-wide conference on the achievement gap in Oregon, sponsored by the Oregon Department of Education. What a great opportunity! The conference had no keynote speaker. What a happy coincidence that the very same weekend that Sup't of Public Instruction Susan Castillo was holding a statewide conference on the achievement gap, the nation's most learned person on that issue, who sat on the US Commission on Civil Rights, was not only in town, but was willing to talk to the conference free of charge.

Castillo had no interest whatever. She passed the offer down to an underling, who "offered" Thernstrom a table in the lobby of the conference to hawk her book. What an insult.

But it reflected the typical education establishment's reflexive insularity. They actively exclude any viewpoint that challenges their own dearly held political viewpoint, no matter how rigorous, no matter the stature of the person.

So when I read yet another article about the achievement gap in Oregon, describing yet another attempt at adjusting the schools' cultures to accomodate the various cultures of the student as it pertains to academic achievement, I just want to scream.

Abigail Thernstrom's message is still being excluded. And that is why I can predict with 100% certainty that this effort, just like the dozens before it, will fail completely. And that failure will be ignored, piled on the ash heap of good intentions and flawed premises.


Kala's Mama said...

You always hit it out of the ballpark Rob.
I appreciate your brutally honest, always logical, no apologies approach. It's especially refreshing in contrast to the mainstream media's/ educrats outright ignorance of FACTS which don't fit into the itty bitty PC box!

Concerned Voter said...

I want to second what Kala's Mama wrote. I always learn something when I read your blog, and I always come away looking at things in a way I had not considered before.

This is fascinating. I have never heard of Abigail Thernstom. But it makes perfect sense. I guess it isn't surprising that the educators are going about this exactly wrong.

It's what we have grown to expect from them. I wonder if the Oregonian reporter has ever heard of Thernstom?

Again, Rob. Top notch post. I wish you would post more regularly, but if this is the quality we get when you do post, I am willing to wait.

Anonymous said...

Kremer I'm glad you finally got back to your blog. I need you to be more regular, because the insanity all around us gets pretty hard to take.

Great post.

country school said...


As the other commentators, I think this theme is right on. I also think this is key in all homes including my own. The great teachers I know were able to effect change with in my own home and culture. The change I am talking about is not throwing out the family culture completely but just adjusting slightly to a culture of reading a book in the home at night rather than watch TV.

Does the book by Abigail Thernstrom discuss methods to change culture in individual families?

Rob Kremer said...

Country School -
No, the book didn't really discuss how to change the family culture, but it did lots of research into cultural attitudes and behaviors of different ethnic and racial groups - how many books are read in the home, how much time spent on homework, that kind of thing.

One finding, it will surprise no one to learn, is that Asian cultures are far more academic focused than white American culture.

But you are exactly right - the point is not to toss away anyone's culture - just change how the individuals value academics, even if their native culture does not.

But this obviously requires two things that the politically correct educator class finds abhorrent: 1) acknowledge that some cultures might not be as "good" as others in terms of supporting academics, and 2)attempt to change the culturally-determined attitude of the child as it concerns academics.

The educator class is perfectly willing and eager to try to change a child's cultural attitudes on things such as sex, the environment, and homosexuality, but they positively cringe at the notion that some cultures need adjusting when it comes to valuing academics.

Anonymous said...

One "cultural" recommendation would be to encourage a child's early mastery of the English language, Another would be to discourage disruptive behavior in school.

In large districts such as Eugene and Portland many experienced teachers abandon disadvantated neighborhood schools and helicopter-parents abandon those neighborhood schools by transferring their kids to better performing schools.

Schools with most of their students performing below grade level, few or no parents volunteering and large numbers of low-seniority teachers are unlikely to close the achievement gap.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear. Great post. The Thernstroms' book is excellent.

Anonymous said...

Good Post.

One more policy my district loves is it's determination to have all the kids learn Spanish while speaking English is optional.

Tim said...

Compelling stuff Rob,
We are planning on discussing this blog at our admin retreat this week.
Tim King

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Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on achivement. It should be very much helpfull

Karim - Creating Power

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