Part 1—Some of the gaps disappear: In last week’s Economic Scene column, the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter avoided some of the gaps.
We refer to the “achievement gaps” which help define the state of America’s public schools. At a glance, you might not see that Porter was avoiding some of those gaps.
As he started his column, Porter stressed a familiar old theme—the alleged failure of American schools as compared to those in the rest of the developed world. Then, he cited one of our highly significant gaps—“the persistent gulf in the test results between the rich and the poor:”
PORTER (5/21/14): Every few years, the United States faces the ritual humiliation of seeing how its educational standards trail those of most other industrial countries.For what it’s worth, Norway has never been a “high-performing country” on the international tests to which Porter referred. Not being an education specialist, the Timesman may not have known that.
The most recent came in 2012, when tests performed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for 15-year-olds found the United States in 26th place among 34 countries in math, 17th place in reading and 21st place in science.
But perhaps even more disturbing, the report highlighted another trend; the persistent gulf in the test results between the rich and the poor.
According to calculations by the OECD, socioeconomic background explains 15 percent of the variation in the performance of American students, far more than in high-performing countries like Finland, Japan and Norway. Only one in 20 children coming from the most disadvantaged quarter of the population manages to excel at school and climb out of the rankings.
Porter was referring to test results from the 2012 PISA—the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment. The PISA is one of two major international testing programs in which most developed nations take part.
According to Porter, the United States faced its latest “ritual humiliation” when those latest PISA results were released. According to Porter, those results demonstrated a disturbing trend: “the persistent gulf in the test results between the rich and the poor” in this country.
In saying this, Porter highlighted one type of “achievement gap” even as he avoided another.
How big is the gap in test results between “the rich and the poor” in this country? Porter didn’t attempt to quantify that gap in his 1300-word column. (Before this month-long series is finished, we will examine that question.)
Porter didn’t quantify the gap between “the rich and the poor.” That said, it seems a bit strange to read that “socioeconomic background explains 15 percent of the variation in the performance of American students.”
Most Times readers wouldn’t be able to explain or paraphrase that technical statement. That said, American students record an unusually wide range of scores on the PISA, as compared to students in countries like Finland and Korea. Given the unusually large gaps between our highest- and lowest-scoring students, Porter’s statistic—15 percent of the variation explained!—sounds remarkably small.
At any rate, our nation’s achievement gaps are large—and Porter went on to paint a fascinating portrait of our gaps in action. We don’t think we’ve ever read a more striking account of the size of these gaps in the public school setting, or of the problems these “vast disparities” can create in our schools:
PORTER: Addressing the vast disparities between students’ abilities will not be easy. 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.In that remarkable portrait, Porter pictures American middle schools whose entering sixth-graders display a very wide range of achievement levels.
Schools struggle to teach this mix. Teachers are frustrated: Almost half leave the profession within five years.
Some sixth-graders enter these schools with the measured proficiency of first graders, Porter says. Some of their classmates are working well above the sixth grade level!
How many American schools struggle to teach such a mix—struggle to address such vast gaps? Porter doesn’t attempt to answer that question. We’ll return to that remarkable passage before our series is through.
Porter pictures enormous achievement gaps in some of our public schools. He says a recent report from the OECD calls attention to the “vast disparities” which obtain between “the rich and the poor.”
As such, he highlights one type of gap in our American schools. But in the process, he avoids another type of achievement gap which defines our American schools—the achievement gap which still obtains between our white kids and our black kids.
That gap is smaller than it once was, a fact which is very good news. But even today, the gap between our black and white kids is often larger than the gap between our upper-income and our lower-income kids, if we look at our most reliable testing data.
Black kids have been performing much better in recent decades—but white kids have performed better too. As a result, the gaps which obtain between these groups remain extremely large.
For years, we’ve begged journalists to tell the public about the strong score gains being recorded by black kids. Assuming the reliability of the data, those score gains constitute very important good news.
The substantial score gains by our black students are extremely important—and they’re a well-kept secret. But the gaps which remain between white and black kids are very important too.
Porter stressed one type of gap, the gap between “the rich and the poor.” He never mentioned another gap, the gap between black kids and white kids.
Mainstream journalists often adopt this approach. They’re often joined by “liberal” advocates.
Almost surely, this practice is bad for black kids. Over the course of the next month, we’ll be explaining why.
Tomorrow—Part 2: Hannah-Jones downplays the gap
Extra credit—close reading assignment: At one point, Porter makes a fleeting, hidden reference to the large gaps which still obtain between our white kids and our black kids.
Can you see where that hidden reference occurs? Why is the reference disguised?