Part 1—Gates disregards the gaps: With substantial regularity, our journalists and “educational experts” disregard the gaps.
They act as if the gaps don’t exist. They disregard the size of the gaps—and our nation’s achievement gaps are very large indeed.
When they disregard the gaps, they disregard the low-income kids who tend to be the victims of this challenging state of affairs. In effect, they display an essential disinterest in these low-income students.
In our view, The Atlantic’s lengthy piece, “Segregation Now...,” largely represents a cuffing-aside of those kids. On balance, so did this commentary by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who sends his son to Manhattan Country School—a perfectly appropriate choice—while passing judgment on Alabamians who take a similar approach.
We’ll save those matters for the fourth week of “Our month of the gaps,” the series which continues today. In this, the third week of our series, we’ll start with education reformer Bill Gates, who has distributed money to many folks in the past fifteen years while disregarding the gaps.
First, a quick blast from the past:
Back in 1997, President Clinton announced a sensible-sounding goal. He wanted to set higher standards for our public schools.
This sounded perfectly sensible. As we asked in the Baltimore Sun, who could possibly be opposed to higher standards?
Inevitably, “higher standards” sounds like something a sensible person would want. That said, we also asked an obvious question:
How can setting higher standards help the millions of low-income kids who are failing to attain the standards we already have? Would “higher standards” help those kids? Eventually, we imagined an example from the world of track:
SOMERBY (2/16/97): When I taught in the Baltimore schools, my fellow teachers knew what the standards were. The problem we had was getting kids to attain them. And nothing the president said in his speech tells me how we will get our students to attain our new, higher standards—how we will meet the wonderful standards that are so easy to discuss in a speech.For the record, we like President Clinton. But when we propose more challenging standards, we blow right past an obvious question:
Setting higher standards always sounds good, but it begs the question of how we will attain the new standards. It’s as if we set the high-jump bar at six feet and found that no one could jump over it. So the president makes a suggestion: Let’s raise the bar to seven!
How are higher standards supposed to help the many kids who can’t meet the standards we already have? If they can’t get over the bar at six feet, why should we raise it to seven?
That column appeared in 1997. We remembered that column when we read yesterday’s Washington Post, in which a major journalist, and a nation of experts, disregarded the very large gaps which define our educational challenge.
Lyndsey Layton’s front-page report was 3700 words long. In great detail, she described the way Bill Gates has spread his money around to get the states to adopt the new Common Core standards.
According to Layton, the Gates Foundation has spent $3.4 billion since 1999 in an attempt to reshape the world of public education. In this passage, Layton offers a puzzling account of what Gates hopes to achieve:
LAYTON (6/8/14): In an interview, Gates said his role is to fund the research and development of new tools, such as the Common Core, and offer them to decision-makers who are trying to improve education for millions of Americans. It's up to the government to decide which tools to use, but someone has to invest in their creation, he said.Apparently speaking English, Gates said the nation’s low-income kids “get less good education than suburban kids get.” Presumably, he was referring to bone-crushing achievement gaps like these:
“The country as a whole has a huge problem that low-income kids get less good education than suburban kids get," Gates said. "And that is a huge challenge. . . . Education can get better. Some people may not believe that. Education can change. We can do better.”
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2013 NAEPThose are painful statistics. On their face, they define extremely large gaps in academic attainment, a point we discussed all last week.
Higher-income students: 297.13
Lower-income students: 269.96
White students: 293.19
Black students: 262.73
Higher-income white students: 299.80
Lower-income white students: 278.36
Higher-income black students: 275.97
Lower-income black students: 258.46
(For details concerning those gaps, see last Thursday's report.)
In a slightly more rational world, those average scores would be seen as highly challenging statistics.
In our world, journalists and “educational experts” routinely disregard the meaning of those statistics and the gaps they define. To our eye, this tendency was on display all through Layton’s report.
Unless something is grossly wrong with those data, lower-income black kids are achieving much less in math, on average, than their higher-income white peers. Based on standard rules of thumb for assessing NAEP scores, the gap seems to be quite large.
We have no idea how this situation will be addressed by adopting the Common Core, which establishes one set of challenging standards for all the students in a given grade.
Given our large achievement gaps, does this approach make sense? Just consider the nation’s eighth-graders:
Some of our middle schools enroll large numbers of lower-income black students—average score in math, 258. Elsewhere, schools may enroll large numbers of higher-income white kids—average score, 300.
Academically, these two groups of kids come from two different worlds. How is any single set of grade-level standards supposed to address their widely divergent needs?
This may be the world’s most obvious question, but it never seems to occur to Layton or her editors. Late in her report, she describes Gates’ intentions again:
LAYTON: Now six years into his quest, Gates finds himself in an uncomfortable place—countering critics on the left and right who question whether the Common Core will have any impact or negative effects, whether it represents government intrusion, and whether the new policy will benefit technology firms such as Microsoft.According to Layton, Gates is trying to address the “gaping inequalities” which obtain in our public schools. The data we have posted above define one of those very large gaps.
Gates is disdainful of the rhetoric from opponents. He sees himself as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social problem—gaping inequalities in U.S. public education—by investing in promising new ideas.
But how can any set of grade-level standards address the yawning achievement gap defined by those punishing data? Layton never asks the question; Gates doesn’t try to explain.
We’ve asked two different questions today. Let’s get clear on what they are:
First question: How can tougher standards help the many kids who can’t meet the standards we already have?
Second question: How can any set of standards address the needs of all the kids in a given grade, given our very wide range of achievement levels?
These are the world’s most obvious questions. But Layton didn’t pose these questions to Gates, and there’s no sign that these questions have ever occurred to him.
Our public schools feature large achievement gaps. Some kids know a lot of math. Other kids know much less.
Our journalists are highly skilled at disregarding the size of those gaps. All this week, we’ll examine the role of the gaps in our public schools—and the way these yawning gaps are routinely ignored.
Tomorrow: In high school, our punishing gaps