THE ROLE OF THE GAPS: Large gaps confronted by Common Core!

MONDAY, JUNE 9, 2014

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.

[...]

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!
For the record, we like President Clinton. But when we propose more challenging standards, we blow right past an obvious question:

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.

“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.”
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:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2013 NAEP
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
Those are painful statistics. On their face, they define extremely large gaps in academic attainment, a point we discussed all last week.

(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.

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.
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.

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

67 comments:

  1. Glad that the Gates comment about the education groups "get" was clarified with academic attainment. The problem isn't the education. Is doing away with 12 grades seen as the solution here? Accommodating failure is usually a bad idea.

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  2. "We’ll save those matters for the fourth week of “Our month of the gaps,” "

    Excuse me? Didn't you start with this matter and continue throughout?

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    1. One can only wait with breathless anticipation for the wonders that THE ROLE OF THE GAPS series will bring us, after we learned ever so much from THE SIZE OF THE GAPS series and AVOIDING THE GAPS series.

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    2. Have you thought about why this bothers you?

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    3. Anonymous @ 5:30 it is a matter of competitive importance.
      Is the range of achievement in our schools wider than that in other countries?

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  3. Doesn't this depend on whether common core is a set of standards for evaluating children and schools or whether it is a curriculum and a set of teaching methods for addressing the content of the standards?

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    1. It is neither. Common Core is really the first attempt to define on a national scale what children at each grade level should be learning. It is not an end-all, be-all solution to all problems, but merely the first step by getting us all on the same page as far as what our children should be learning and when.

      What curricula you use and how you use it is entirely a local decision.

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    2. So, then I think Somerby is making a good point. How can the Common Core address any gaps. It can identify them, perhaps in a more specific way than NAEP, but what else will it do to move children toward achieving the defined learning?

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    3. I don't know what point you think Somerby is trying to make. Asking Common Core to address the gaps is like asking your oven to automatically cook dinner for you without you putting anything into it.

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    4. It is Bill Gates who says that Common core is intended to address these gaps. Somerby is pointing out that Gates has not said how Common Core will do that, nor have journalists asked him that question.

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    5. To be truthful Anonymous @ 3:34, we couldn't find anwhere in the quotes from Gates that mentions the gaps.

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    6. Try this (from Layton):

      "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."

      A gaping inequality is a gap.

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    7. You nailed it in your first line. It is a quote from Layton, not Gates.

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    8. Layton interviewed Gates.

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  4. "First, a quick blast from the past:" Howler 6/9/14


    "This is a very good question—has been for a long time. We wrote an op-ed column on this very topic for the Baltimore Sunday Sun in February 1997, when President Clinton was proposing that we make our “standards” tougher.

    In that column, we compared the proposed action to peculiar conduct at a track meet. None of the athletes can high jump 6 feet—so officials decide to raise the bar to 7 feet! " Howler 6/11/13

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    1. "We taught in the Baltimore City schools from 1969 through 1982. Mostly, we taught fifth grade.

      Happily, NAEP data say that our nation’s tenth percentile scorers—our kids who are struggling in school—are now scoring substantially better than was the case in the 1970s. But the gaps are still extremely large between our lowest and highest scorers.

      Have you ever seen an “educational expert” attempt to address this fact? Ever, by which we mean even once?"
      Howler 12/7/13

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    2. Is your point perhaps that Somerby, being modest, does not consider himself to be an educational expert?

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    3. "When we taught in Baltimore’s public schools (mostly fifth grade), we were struck by this problem above all others (and by its near-relations). Indeed, we wrote about this groaning, unaddressed problem in the Baltimore Sun more than 25 years ago! (Excerpts below.)" Howler 11/21/2007

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    4. "What good does it do to invent higher standards, if kids can’t meet the standards we have? Long ago, at the start of that “standards revolution,” we asked that question in the Baltimore Sun, responding to the first President Bush’s call for higher standards. It’s like no one can high-jump six feet, we said—and President Bush wants to raise the bar to seven! Eight years later, in the Sunday Sun, we asked the same questions when President Clinton proposed higher standards too:


      SOMERBY (2/16/97): But surely we will at least want to seek higher standards; surely, there’s nothing but good in that! It is generally agreed that American high schools are producing many students whose skills are unimpressive. What could be wrong, then, with raising our standards—with setting the bar a bit higher?

      Again, let me focus on urban schools, where our educational shortfall is most tragic. 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 example, one of the goals President Clinton cited is that all students should be able to read by third grade. Ignore the fact that this "goal” is so vaguely stated that, in practice, it means almost nothing. Does anyone think that our teachers—right now—don't have this "goal" for their students? And yet, Texas Gov. George W. Bush Jr. spoke out last week, accusing Clinton of stealing the "goal" from him! In this way, we see how daft our discussion has been—and the extent to which politicians are willing to pander with pronouncements which mean next to nothing.

      Setting higher standards always sounds good, but it begs the question of how we will meet them. 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!" Howler 3/9/2009

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    5. "In our view, Wolk makes many puzzling claims in this piece; for one example, that achievement gap hasn’t been “unyielding.” (Though substantial gaps still exist.) But in this particular passage, Wolk is right on the mark. Why would “higher common standards” help deserving kids who may be years behind their middle-class peers? How would “common standards” work in our schools at all, given our wide achievement gaps? Should kids who are years below grade level be taught the same things as our highest achievers? We first raised this question in 1989, in the Baltimore Sunday Sun. From that day to this, we’ve never seen the question addressed." Howler 3/16/2011

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    6. Please stop excerpting previous Somerby statements and cluttering up the comments with them.

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    7. 4:17 when you disregard disregard theses statements you disregard the low-income kids who tend to be the victims of this challenging state of affairs. In effect, you display an essential disinterest in these low-income students.

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    8. You are a troll, not someone concerned with kids. You are implying some criticism of Somerby but you do not state what it is. Either discuss or go away. I don't care which.

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    9. That is not fair 5:19. I care about kids. Why just the other day I was so motivated by the near death of a seven year old girl that it made me think of reading gaps and then how an online journal had not adequately covered this young girl being attacked. I cared about the young girl so much I did research to find out just how many times the journal had mentioned her crime.

      I care about kids. That is why I posted dozens of comments lamenting that a young girl could not go to college. I did not bother to do the research that might have told me she had already been accepted by a college. Because I care.

      You are implying some criticism because you gave me a choise to discuss something or go away. In the real world you also may have called me a name. We don't know.

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    10. Troll garbage.

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    11. Academically, we come from two different worlds. 5:51. How is any single set of commetary standards supposed to address our widely divergent views?

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    12. Shorter:

      Why, yes, I AM a douchebag. But I did get you to to talk to me, so there!

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    13. Actually it was longer than your last one. And your name calling has reached the multisyllabic. It is a shame a blogger like Somerby attracts so many intersting in practicing the pseudo liberal tribal ritual of hate.

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    14. So using his ridiculous analogy what does Bob propose to do? Lower the high jump bar to one foot so all kids can clear it? Or doing away with the high jump altogether?

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  5. Te Nehisi Coates stated a fact about Tuscaloosa. He did not "pass judgment on Alabamians" who, like Coates, send their kids to private schools.

    This whole riff attacking those who are worried about possible evidence of re-segregation as a vehicle for talking about the "gaps" is deeply misguided. Because both are extremely important subjects that each deserve attention, his need to keep criticizing Hannah-Jones and Coates, both African-American and obviously inclined to be especially sensitive to apparent steps backward in the long-term dismantling of the Jim Crow system, suggests that Somerby is really animated by the need to attack people more than advance a positive agenda himself. Consider how many words have been expended on attacking those authors compared to those suggesting gap-filling solutions. We will see how this adds up when the series is done.

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    1. Not fair. Somerby did an extensive series on the gaps back in 2006 featuring the work of Paul Tough in the New York Times.
      Tough, by the way, worte about both the achievement gaps and the 32 million word gap.

      He addressed solutions in Part 4. We noted this in a comment in the preceding post this morning. Like Somerby we will repeat ourselves.

      "As I recall Part 4 was going to feature Bob's ideas of what to do about the 30 million word problem. It was delayed by an Interlude, a couple of posts about NCAA football (PAC 10 is better than SEC), an attack on a Gail Collins Editorial about No Child Left Behind. A week after Part 4 was promised Bob wrote:

      "POSTPONED TILL MONDAY: The thoughts we had when we read Paul Tough’s useful report."

      He made another promise to post it the next week, in between a couple of posts attacking Maureen Dowd. Monday, it seems, never came. Maybe today is the Monday he had in mind almost 8 years ago.

      Visit Bob's archives from December 2006."

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    2. When segregation was mandated by law, it was a wrong being done to African Americans. Now that self-segregation is occurring as the result of choices made by both black and white people about where to live, it is hard to see this as a step backward or as having anything to do with Jim Crow.

      If this were a real problem occurring because of racism, I would agree with your suggestion. However, I believe this is not that kind of problem. The numbers show that (1) there are too many African American children in the system to achieve more racially balanced enrollments, (2) there is no evidence that African Americans are being forced to attend Central High or any other predominantly black school, and (3) I agree that it is questionable whether black kids are being funneled away from AP or gifted classes by race rather than by achievement.

      You need to engage these arguments to convince anyone that resegregation deserves concern. Demographic studies suggest that African Americans, like European Americans, prefer to live in neighborhoods where they feel comfortable, which generally means that they are not a minority (the % of African Americans is no lower than 35%, which seems to be a tipping point for people feeling out of place, whether white or black).

      Somerby has stated that he considers this issue to be a distraction from the need to focus on improving the racial gaps. I think that is a positive argument, not an attack.

      People here seem to be calling for Somerby to offer some magic solution to the gaps. He may not have one. There may not exist such a solution among educational experts either. If that is the case, it is even more important to focus attention on this problem so that educators, politicians, parents and even Bill Gates can focus on finding solutions.

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    3. You may be on to something 4:13

      Maybe black people prefer to live in neighborhoods where they are merely stopped and frisked by the police for being black rather than shot dead by armed neighborhood "watchmen" and guys buying gas.

      I mean, if you are black in a white neighborhood, some pesky neighbor might turn you in for breaking into your own
      house when you lock yourslef out, and then a cop would arrest you after you've proven you are in your own home.

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    4. Gates was arrested for being abusive to the police officers, who were protecting his house, after all, and were in the process of leaving when he followed them onto the porch to berate them further. No one has the right to do that, white or black.

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    5. @4:20 -- sounds like you have a grievance against neighborhood watches.

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    6. No, 4:32. And 4:31 doesn't have it quite right either. It is uppity homeowners giving lip to cops I can't abide.

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    7. Gates was arrested for disturbing the peace, something almost impossible to do in your own home, even on your own porch. Which is why the charges were dismissed. Everyone, especially on his own property, has the right to be verbally "abusive" to police officers. That's the essence of the First Amendment. No one has the right to create a disturbance in public or interfere with a cop doing his duty, but neither of those conditions obtained in Gates' case.

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    8. According to one report, a crowd was gathering. That can be dangerous to cops and that is sometimes why they arrest someone who is being vocally abusive. If you think someone can be verbally abusive to cops without consequence you have lived a privileged life indeed.

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    9. Nobody told the cop he had to stay in his car.

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    10. Gates just doesn't want anyone protecting his house while he is out of town.

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    11. No surprise, @ 5:29. Gates ignores the gaps.

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    12. Good heavens, Anonymous 5:18P, I don't think being verbally abusive to cops is without consequence. Especially if you're black. Cops have guns. And bullets.

      The claim was that Gates didn't have the right to berate the cops on his property. He did. Exercising one's rights isn't always the politic thing to do, and exercising them doesn't guarantee they'll be respected. As Gates found out on both counts.

      The gathering crowd sounds like a post hoc excuse, which I don't recall that the police even bothered to use. If the crowd was a potential hazard, then arresting Gages would have made things worse. Since the arrest went forward, it obviously wasn't much of a consideration.

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  6. Urban Legend you suggest Somerby has a need to attack Te Nehisi Coates. I tell you for a fact Somerby has state several times he is a big fan of Te Nehisi Coates. Right before he attacks him.

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    1. Criticizing is not the same as "attacking".

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    2. I stand corrected. Somerby has sometimes said nice things about Coates before saying unkind things about his work, which is most of the time he mentions Coates at all.

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    3. Bob does seem to employ a double standard when writing about Coates.

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    4. Disagreeing with someone or criticizing them is not being "unkind" or saying unkind things. It is part of dialog.

      It would be a double standard if he failed to criticize other people saying similar things -- I just don't see that happening.

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    5. To our eye, this tendency was is on display all through Somerby's posts.

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  7. Here is another intervention that seems to be helping. It does not address the gaps in performance, just the gaps in dropout and graduation rates. In Today's NY Times.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/07/stop-holding-us-back/?_php=true&_type=blogs&hp&rref=opinion&_r=0

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    1. Some around here are of the belief that linking to an article which differs from Somerby is trolling.

      I am not one of those. It was a good article.

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    2. Of course in a real world Somerby would not have missed this.

      http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/the-benefits-of-mixing-rich-and-poor/#more-152970

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  8. 5:15 - A false statement about what Coates said is not "criticizing" him.

    4:13: I hope you were trying for satire.

    I have no issue with Somerby's focus on the gaps. It's been a lonely and laudable fight by him almost alone in the major media and most popular progressive blogs. But I do disagree with using Hannah-Jones' and Coates' writings on a related but different subject that has enormous national importance in its own right as a counterpoint to the gaps subject. Somerby has come close to saying, "Hey, segregation is not as bad as 1965, so lighten up. The real subject is the gaps and we need to do other things to address that. Discussion of anything but that when it comes to education and race is a distraction." That comes dangerously close to accepting a "separate-but-equal" concept.

    I'll bet Hannah-Jones and Coates are actually more personally concerned about the gaps than Bob is.

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    1. Are you arguing that segregated housing exists because black people cannot live in integrated neighborhoods? How exactly do you integrate a school when the surrounding neighborhoods do not have sufficient white kids? You may think it is a good idea to combine the high schools again, but there are studies showing that such very large, mega-high schools don't provide as good an education as smaller schools do (setting aside issues of race).

      Have you considered that Hannah-Jones and Coates are aware of the gap and concerned about it but participating in a conspiracy of silence because such gaps might give fuel to those arguing that African Americans have lesser ability or are not up to the opportunities offered by affirmative action? Have you considered whether they are adhering to a "never criticize" policy when it comes to anyone black arising from the need for racial unity, and thus collude to not discuss the gaps outside the black community? That may be part of what Somerby is referring to when he accuses liberals of being unwilling to talk about the gaps.

      If African Americans cannot achieve change alone, they need allies in the larger society. That means they must talk about the gaps -- we must all talk about the gaps together. Somerby may be trying to force that to happen. You can call him racist (or imply it) but I doubt that is what is going on with him. Someone here was on my case yesterday for discussing Bill Cosby -- someone who has also been pilloried for trying to wash racial dirty laundry in public.

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    2. Too bad 4:13 answered. I was not going to speak for him/her. I was going to say, in response to UL's question, that regardless of intent, 4:13 achieved satire of the first order.

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    3. Here you go 4:13/6:34

      I'll give you a link for a good discussion of housing segregation and how it was enforced outside the segregated south.

      BTW, Somerby is a "fan" of the auhtor.

      http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

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    4. The key word in your comment is "was".

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    5. Didn't read it, did you.

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    6. Again, we hear the myth of the "conspiracy of silence." Good grief, take five seconds to google "achievement gaps". It is one of the most reported education stories of the past several decades.

      But go ahead. Don't question Somerby. After all, he is the "authority" around here, and we must never question authority.

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  9. In a slightly more rational world, we should lower the bar or get kids who can't clear six feet to compete in another event.

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    1. Or, tell all the coaches that if the kids don't clear six feet then they will get fired. If the kid can't meet the standard it's always the coaches fault, and only the coaches fault; there is no other factor. Probably the problem is that the coaches are unionized and need to work another couple of hours a day.

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    2. Excuse me, make that the coach's fault.

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  10. What does Somerby mean that no education expert ever comments on the gaps?

    Why, this blog is filled with "education experts" and they all have as much expertise as Somerby. And they are all commenting.

    Word to Somerby re: Common Core, however. Question yourself and everything you have read about Common Core, then do some more serious study on it before you comment again.

    Because you are certainly making an ass out of yourself by putting your ignorance on display.

    And to all the "education experts" out there, no, Common Core is not a Bill Gates initiative. You'll have to hunt for a new scapegoat to beat on.

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    1. The NY Times disagrees with you on Bill Gates involvement in Common Core.

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    2. The issue isn't whether or not Bill Gates is involved with it. The issue is whether he invented it -- that this is something he dreamed up and is shoving it down our throats.

      He didn't. But he was certainly on board early with the money to research and implement Common Core.

      One huge advantage of Common Core is that it will break the back of fragmented market system to whom textbook and software publishers must cater to.

      We will -- finally -- have national expectations of what should be taught at each grade level in the key areas of literacy and math.

      And no, it's not about setting the high jump bar to seven feet when children can't clear six feet. It's about giving them the basic skills to progress through the school system so they are prepared for jobs in the real world.



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  11. Based on standard rules of thumb for assessing NAEP scores, the gap seems to be quite large.

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  12. We have learned from earlier posts that the aggregated math scores on 8th grade NAEP Math have improved about 30 points since 1990.

    Does this mean American students on average are at grade level in math? Or does it mean that compared to 1990, American 8th graders students as a whole perform at an 11th grade level compared to 8th graders a quarter century ago?

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