Part 1—Twenty miles apart: Let's talk today about some gaps between two large school systems.
There are more than 13,000 public school systems in the United States. The two of which we speak today are located roughly twenty miles apart.
Each of these systems is among the nation's hundred largest. The two school systems are these:
The Baltimore City Public Schools, which was serving roughly 84,000 students as of 2010.These large school systems aren't far apart as the fast car or transit bus drives. But according to Stanford professor Sean Reardon, some other gaps between the two districts are huge.
The Howard County (Md.) Public Schools, which enrolled roughly 51,000 students that year.
In April 2016, the New York Times published this data-rich report based on research by Reardon and two associates. Online, the newspaper's interactive graphics included basic information on every school district in the United States.
What kinds of gaps existed between the two school systems under review? Let's start with median family income of the two systems' pupils. From this point on, all data come from Reardon and the Times:
Median family income of studentsThe "income gap" is very large. We'd even call it huge.
Baltimore City: $36,000
Howard County: $118,000
It's also true that there are differences in demographics, as our society conceives them, between these large school districts. Acording to Professor Reardon, those numbers looked like this:
Demographics of student populationsEach of these systems is full of great kids. That said, Baltimore's students come from families which are much less wealthy. The breakdowns by "race" are different too.
Baltimore City: 8 percent white; 86 percent black; 4 percent Hispanic; 2 percent Asian-American
Howard County: 49 percent white; 22 percent black; 7 percent Hispanic; 22 percent Asian-American
Now we come to the type of gap we'll be discussing all week. We speak about the so-called "achievement gap" between these two groups of public school students.
As part of a massive project on which the Times was reporting that day, Reardon had analyzed test score data from every school district in the nation. Through a bit of statistical legerdemain, he'd created statistics which purported to show how many years above and below "grade level" the average student in each district was.
Professor Reardon has done lots of valuable work through the years. That said, we think these statistics should be taken as highly approximate.
That very much doesn't mean that his data are no darn good! And according to Professor Reardon, this is where the average student in each of our two school districts stood, across the sweep of six school years, in a combination of reading and math, Grade 3 through Grade 8:
Where the average student stoodThose average scores cover a sweep of six school years. They combine the average student's standing in reading and math.
Baltimore City: 1.5 years below grade level
Howard County: 1.8 years above grade level
We'd regard those numbers as highly approximate. We also regard those numbers as highly revealing and useful.
Those numbers suggest that, perhaps at the start of the sixth grade year, there may be something like an "achievement gap" of 3.3 years between the average student in Howard County and the average student in Baltimore City, a mere twenty miles away (in some cases, quite a bit closer).
More than three years is a lot, especially at the start of sixth grade! Now, we direct you to various lists of so-called "learning standards," the official "content standards" now in effect in Maryland, one of the fifty states.
More specifically, we'll direct you to Maryland's "State Curriculum," defined as "the document that identifies the Maryland Content Standards and aligns them with the Maryland Assessment Program."
According to that official document, the State Curriculum offers "broad, measurable statements about what students should know and be able to do." More precisely, the State Curriculum offers "measurable statements about what students should know and be able to do" in each grade, from Pre-K through Grade 8.
What should students "know and be able to do" in math in Grade 6? It's not that anyone actually cares, but you can check that here.
If you click that link, you'll be looking at the "content standards" for Grade 6 math all over the state of Maryland. They're the official "content standards" for every public school and school system in the state.
Having said that, hold on! Citizens, let's review:
In Baltimore City, the average student in sixth grade is something like 3.3 years below the average student in Howard County. And those are just the average students! The less successful Baltimore kids are even farther behind the higher achieving students in Howard County!
Should those students all be taught the same math program in sixth grade? Based on his recent column in the Washington Post, that's what Arne Duncan seems to think, and the harder the program the better!
All week long, we'll be exploring a basic question:
On what planet could such a thought possibly make any sense?
Tomorrow: The gaps get much, much larger!
Please don't call him Johnson: You shouldn't confuse the Baltimore City Public Schools with the Baltimore County Public Schools, a large suburban public school system just outside Baltimore City.
The Baltimore County system is larger than that in Baltimore City. As of 2010, it was the nation's 26th largest, serving roughly 104,000 students.
According to Professor Reardon's data, its average student was 0.4 years above grade level, 2.1 years ahead of the average student in neighboring Baltimore City.
Due to annoying glitches in the New York Times' graphics, we can't give you the rest of Reardon's data for this large system, which surrounds Baltimore City on three sides, separated, not by a moat, but by a two-year gap.