Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How today's schools are widening the achievement gap

A recent, much-discussed New York Times article on the achievement gap between rich and poor students is just as noteworthy for what it omits. As Barry Garelick comments on this past week's problem of the week:

The article just leaves it as a big puzzle as to why there is disparity in educational achievement based on income levels. There is not even a hint that education practices in the US do not serve students well, and that those who can afford it, get the education they need through parents, tutors, and learning centers (Sylvan, Kumon and the like). Low income families are not able to afford the external education.
The effects of the achievement gap are profoundly worrying, the more so as it won't go away until the Powers that Be start looking at how schools themselves are complicit.

The more I think about this gap, the more it occurs to me that it marks a division not just between those who do and don't have resources for external education, but also between those who do and don't assume they can entrust their kids' education entirely to their schools. Wealthier parents tend to have the time and resources to find out about how schools (even many of the wealthier public schools and the more exclusive private and magnet schools) have changed since they themselves were in school. Not too long after their kids enroll, they start learning about the myriad problems with Reform Math and about how penmanship, phonics-based reading instruction, and sentence-based writing instruction are no longer in vogue. Their tigerish parental interventions are swift and effective.

I'm guessing that poorer parents, especially if they happen to be recent immigrants from countries whose schools still practice direct, structured instruction, are less likely to suspect the reality of today's American classrooms--and more likely to make the should-be natural assumption that the schools will properly educate their kids. I see this close to home, in West Philadelphia's African immigrant communities.

Of course, if you're a parent in the first category--one who's providing your kids with extracurricular educational opportunities--it helps if your kids are some combination of compliant, academically motivated, and voracious in their reading habits. Then you can rest assured that they will achieve, no matter how Constructivist their classrooms are.

Which leads me to a third set of parents, a subset of the generally wealthy ones (wealthy and resourceful enough to keep their homes stocked with a wide variety of good fiction and nonfiction at appropriate reading levels) whose kids are on the high side America's achievement gap. I'm thinking of parents with kids whose reading habits are especially voracious and omnivorous, and whose writing is prolific (and legible). I'm thinking of humanities types who tend not to care that much about math and science education. These parents, seeing their kids learning plenty of history and literature, and producing plenty of decent writing, and making their teachers happy at school, don't see what their parental peers are so worked up about. Why worry about what's not happening in school: surely, assuming you're a good enough parent, your kids will be curious enough to learn what matters on their own!

What these people--and many others--don't realize is that not all kids are, by nature, voracious and omnivorous enough readers (or prolific enough writers) to make up on their own for deficiencies in K12 literacy and social studies. They thereby overlook two secondary achievement gaps (besides the big one between rich and poor) that our schools are failing to narrow: a gap in general knowledge between kids who read a lot on their own and those who don't, and a similar gap in writing ability.


Barry Garelick said...

Speaking of which, the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss consults her big book of answers on education (which she keeps next to her thesaurus on her desk) and lists seven myths about education.

Myth no. 1 on her list: "Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning "

It goes downhill from there.

It can be found here.

Cynthia said...

Responding to Barry, the big point they're missing is that the "deep learning" they are striving for can't usually be taught. It's a bi-product of pondering the facts one has floating around in one's head, often while in the quiet classroom setting she also abhors. And "listening to teachers and studying for tests" may not prepare students for life (that's debatable), but having some knowledge in their heads will certainly help.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Well, given that we're now in a certification and credential mad era, studying for tests WILL help you prepare for life, if by 'preparing for life' you mean 'helping you get jobs so that you can eat and have shelter and stuff....'

The computer guys I know seem to have to take tests pretty regularly......

Anonymous said...

Reading the Post's Ed Section is usually depressing and I had the same reaction to the article. Then Jay Mathews took on the issue of ES suspensions, as if he'd want any kid of his to have a classmate who kicks, hits, bites and attacks him with scissors. Disruptive kids should be removed and the dangerous ones should be removed permanently. I think that part of the achievement gap starts with a lack of disciplined behavior in school, because no one can learn in a chaotic environment. Walter Williams has a current column on this issue, on Townhall; as illustrated by his old Philly high school. Unfortunately, there are too many lawyers,courts,social workers and other nanny-state functionaries standing between kids and the proper consequences - let alone spaghetti-spined admins.