A very large challenge for schools: We just keep reprinting that striking passage from Eduardo Porter’s Economic Scene column.
Our achievement gaps are large. The challenge this creates for schools is almost never discussed in our impoverished education discourse, which mainly involves reciting sound-bites from elite “education reformers.”
In the passage shown below, Porter describes a deeply challenging state of affairs. Based on our dozen years in the classroom, this strikes us as the most significant portrait we’ve ever read of American schools:
PORTER (5/21/14): 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.Do American schools really confront such “vast disparities” in achievement within a single grade, within a single age group? In our experience, yes, they do—and the problem created by these gaps is virtually never discussed.
Schools struggle to teach this mix. Teachers are frustrated: Almost half leave the profession within five years.
(Instead, we create grade-level “standards” for all the schools in a given state—or now, for all the schools in the nation. No one explains how such an approach is supposed to make sense, given those “vast disparities.”)
As “Our month of the gaps” continues, we’ll discuss the challenges created by this wide range of achievement levels. For today, let’s consider a question:
Is the range of achievement in our schools wider than that in other countries?
Do our schools confront an unusually wide range of achievement levels? In her ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley seemed to say that they do. In this passage, she described results from the first PISA tests in 2000:
RIPLEY (page 17): Across the ocean, the United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada [in math], a middling performance that would be repeated in every subsequent round [of PISA testing]. U.S. teenagers did better in reading but that was only comforting, since math skills tended to be better predictors of future earnings.Ripley refers to a PISA statistic which compares average scores in the top and bottom quarters of a nation’s student population (essentially, by family socioeconomic status). In that initial testing, the range of reading scores within the U.S. was about three times as large as the range of scores in Korea.
Even in reading, a gulf of more than ninety points separated America’s most-advantaged kids from the least-advantaged peers. By comparison, only thirty-three points separated Korea’s most-privileged and least-privileged students, and almost all of them scored higher than their American counterparts.
It’s simpler to run a classroom, a school or a school district if you aren’t forced to confront a very wide range of achievement levels. For today, we’ll assume that this basic point will seem fairly obvious.
Back in 2000, we had a much wider range of scores than Korea. To what extent has this pattern obtained in other rounds of PISA testing?
We’ve never seen that question discussed, and we never will.
Porter’s portrait goes to a point which is almost never discussed. “Education reporters” tend to restrict themselves to familiar, elite-sponsored talking points: Our teachers are a group of fiends! Our schools are in a tailspin!
Steadily rising scores on the NAEP are hard to square with that memorized message. The solution is easily grasped:
“Education reporters” never report the steady rise in those scores!
To ponder Ripley’s statistic, click here, scroll to Figure 6.1.