Part 3—Teaching from behind: How would tougher “standards”—a more challenging course of study—address the nation’s large achievement gaps?
For ourselves, we have no idea. But that seems to be Bill Gates’ basic concept of the Common Core.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton produced a valuable report about the way Gates has used his billions to create and sponsor the Common Core. Late in her piece, she described his semi-magical thinking:
LAYTON (6/8/14): 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...Those “gaping inequalities” certainly are a profound social problem. But how does the Common Core address 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.
For ourselves, we have no idea—and Layton didn’t ask.
Often, people like Gates don’t seem to grasp the role of the gaps in our schools. By ninth grade, years of failure and incomprehension drive alienation and despair. In turn, these attitudes drive the truancy and the suspensions described by Robert Balfanz in his report about low-income high schools in Sunday’s New York Times.
In a piece for the Sunday Review, Balfanz described high schools in which many ninth-graders are years below traditional “grade level” and are badly disaffected to boot. That very same day, in the Washington Post, Gates said a tougher course of study would somehow address this gap.
We have no idea how that would work. To us, Gates was disregarding the role of the gaps, as is amazingly common.
For today, let’s forget the alienation of those struggling ninth-grade students. Let’s go all the way back to fourth grade. Let’s assume the children in question are still full of high hopes.
By most accounts, large achievement gaps are already present by fourth grade. Many Americans kids will be reading above the fourth grade level. Many others will be several years behind.
In math, these scores from last year’s NAEP suggest substantial gaps:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, 2013 NAEPTen percent of fourth-graders scored above 278; a similar number scored below 202. Taken at face value, those scores suggest a very large gap in math achievement, involving large numbers of kids.
Higher-income students 253.98
Lower-income students 230.20
90th percentile 278.21
75th percentile 262.07
50th percentile 243.03
25th percentile 222.45
10th percentile 202.82
Schools are challenged by these gaps, in an array of ways. And it isn’t just our journalists and “educational experts” who fail to come to terms with the size of the gaps. Often, schools and school systems do a poor job meeting the challenges too.
How do you teach in the face of such gaps? Should every child be taught the same math, no matter how much they already know? Should everyone get the same reading assignments, no matter how well they can read?
According to the Common Core, everyone should be taught the same math—we just need to make the math harder! We don’t know how that’s supposed to work for the many (superlative) kids on the short end of those very large gaps.
We’ve followed these topics for more than forty years. We never cease to be amazed by the ease with which people disregard the size of the gaps, and the role they play in our classrooms.
Let’s wander back almost forty years to consider a classic example.
In the late 1970s, the Baltimore City Schools produced a sweeping new social studies curriculum. At each grade level, the study guide recommended an astonishing array of textbooks and supplementary reading materials.
No school could possibly afford to purchase all the listed books. But a more obvious problem obtained: many books seemed to be much too hard for kids at the given grade level.
The author of this sweeping curriculum, the late Sam Banks, was a superlative person. But he seemed to have little sense of the role of the gaps in elementary schools.
One year, we conducted a study of the “readability” of the various books in the city’s social studies and science curricula.
We used standard readability formulas, which are of course imprecise. In the Baltimore Sun, we described part of what we had found:
SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore social studies] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.Good grief! Chu’s book may be superb, but if we want fourth graders to get lots of reading experiences, they won’t be getting them there—the book is simply too hard. Nor did it make much sense to recommend a sixth-grade textbook for fourth-grade students who were often working below their own grade’s reading level.
In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.
Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.
In the year we spent on this study, we came to admire Dr. Banks, for several different reasons. But as far as we know, he had never taught elementary school. We’d have to say he had little sense of the role played by the gaps in such schools.
The gaps are already there in fourth grade. As the grades roll by and the gaps widen, the challenge to teachers may grow. It may become harder and harder to find readable textbooks and supplementary reading materials—the kinds of books the students can actually read.
When it comes to math, a school system may have an excellent curriculum—but it will likely be geared to kids who are working on or around traditional “grade level.” If your students are years “behind,” and perhaps confused and discouraged to boot, there is no guide you can follow at all, let alone a textbook program.
When will we see instructional programs geared to the full range of students? In his recent column, Eduardo Porter described the kind of gap which obtains at the start of sixth grade:
“In some public schools, children who are entering the sixth grade with the measured proficiency of first graders are mixed in with children who perform well above the sixth-grade standard.”
Last Sunday, Balfanz described the gap which obtains in low-income high schools:
“In a 22-school sample that we studied closely, nearly all ninth-grade students were either too old for their grades, had repeated ninth grade, needed special education, were chronically absent or had academic skills at the seventh grade level or below.”
We’ll guess that quite a few of those kids had academic skills at well below the seventh grade level. You can’t address these yawning gaps by teaching everyone the same thing—let alone by making your common “standards” even harder!
Dr. Banks was a deeply caring person. But he seemed to have no sense of the role played by the gaps in our elementary schools.
Today, a similar blind spot obtains. According to the Common Core, all kids should get taught the same sixth-grade math—but we need to make it harder!
How does that help sixth-grade students who are already floundering and confused? We don’t have the slightest idea. Layton didn’t ask.
Tomorrow: The gaps before kindergarten