Public school watch: Four grade levels, the New York Times says!

TUESDAY, MAY 3, 2016

Obvious questions unasked:
In this morning's New York Times, Motoko Rich has a lengthy "Upshot" report about family income and achievement in the public schools.

(When you see the "Upshot" label, you're supposed to conclude that you're reading brainiac work.)

We want to wait a day or two before commenting on Rich's work. It's based on voluminous data from Stanford's Sean Reardon.

That said, there are some fascinating graphics if you read the report on-line. And by the way: If you read the report on-line, you'll be met by these headlines:
Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares
Sixth graders in the richest school districts are four grade levels ahead of children in the poorest districts.
Let's focus on that striking sub-headline: "Sixth graders in the richest school districts are four grade levels ahead of children in the poorest districts."

We have one question to ask about that. You will never see this question addressed in education reports in the New York Times. It's the most obvious question on the face of the earth. For that reason, it will never occur to the gang which reports on schools for the Times.

Our question:

If achievement levels vary that much in the sixth grade, what does it means when the various states adopt statewide grade-level standards? Viewed from a slightly different angle, how can the nation's public schools work from a single grade-level "Common Core" for each of the grades?

We've been asking some variant of this question for the past forty years. That said, it's impossible to get education elites and education reporters to focus on this question, which is blindingly obvious.

Let's review what that question means:

According to that headline, sixth graders in some higher-achieving school districts are "four grade levels ahead" of their peers in some lower-achieving districts.

Based on Rich's graphics, we seem to be talking about average achievement levels for kids in these districts. That means that the achievement gaps will be even larger if we compare the highest-achieving individual students to those with the poorest skills.

There gaps are said to obtain across the nation in the sixth grade. How then can a state adopt a single set of grade-level "standards" for that state's sixth-graders? How can a single set of standards—a single curriculum—make sense for all those kids, when their achievement levels are so widely divergent?

We've been asking this question for forty years; the question is blindingly obvious. That said, it's impossible to get education experts or education reporters to focus on this blindingly obvious question.

Even on the most elite levels, our public discussions of public schools are just amazingly primitive. That's the thought which popped in our heads when we saw that headline today.

The winter of 82: In the winter of 82, we wrote an op-ed for the Baltimore Evening Sun about a related topic. It concerned the suitability of recommended textbooks for grade school kids in the Baltimore City Schools.

Below, you see excerpts. For a bit of background and some context, you can just click here:
SOMERBY (2/9/82): In grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore teaching] guides recommend textbooks that are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books that are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

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.

The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
Thirty-four years later, extremely wide achievement gaps still obtain in our public schools. That's even true on the grade school level.

Without fail, the obvious questions raised by this fact will go unaddressed. Once or twice, we've suggested the possibility that nobody actually cares.


  1. If your sixth grade is at a fourth grade level, you might try using fourth grade textbooks.

    1. Unfortunately, each grade level has different topics to teach. For example, in California, fourth graders learn about missions and geographical regions while, sixth graders, I'm not mistaken, learn world history.

    2. Dave the Guitar PlayerMay 5, 2016 at 12:59 PM

      I think the point would be that there needs to be appropriate texts. If students are reading at a fourth grade level in the sixth grade, there needs to be world history texts that can be read and understood by students reading at a fourth grade level. Then, even students struggling with reading can learn world history in the sixth grade.

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