THE ROLE OF THE GAPS: In fourth grade!


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...

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.
Those “gaping inequalities” certainly are a profound social problem. But how does the Common Core address those very large gaps?

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 NAEP
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
Ten 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.

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.

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.
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 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


  1. OMB (Still Wondering What the Heck OTB is Writing About?)

    "How would tougher “standards”—a more challenging course of study—address the nation’s large achievement gaps?"

    Is the aim of Common Core standards to adopt "tougher" standards
    or a uniform national standard?

    Is the achievement gap addressed by Common Core really the internal
    achievement gap revealed when you disaggregate scores on the "gold standard" NAEP test, or the gap when comparing US students to those from other countries?


    1. We applaud BOB for attempting to answser the first question in his Supplemental post. In our view he did not, but your results may equivocate. Nobody has even taken on the second. Did nobody out there suffer through the series on the PISA cult?


  2. OMB (Still Wondering What the Heck OTB is Writing About)

    "How would tougher “standards”—a more challenging course of study—address the nation’s large achievement gaps?"

    How do we know there are gaps without a standard?

    Is the "rough rule of thumb" by which BOB evaluates gap size based on NAEP test results used to determine where the mythical "high jump bar" in his overused analogy is placed?


    1. Good question. We might also ask how Bob knows the difference between a "fourth-grade reading level" and an "eighth-grade reading level" without some sort of standard to measure them against.

      I am also highly dubious of his claim that fourth-graders in Baltimore were using social studies textbooks written for eighth-graders.

      If that were true, then whoever is in charge of setting curriculum and deciding which textbooks to use made a fundamentally stupid decision.

      And no, nothing can cure stupidity.

    2. I am also highly dubious of his claim that fourth-graders in Baltimore were using social studies textbooks written for eighth-graders.

      TDH did not claim that fourth-graders in Baltimore had eighth-grade text books. He wrote that a new curriculum recommended a list of books (the entirety of which, "[n]o school could possibly afford….").

      And no, we don't know who was in charge of deciding which text books actually made it into the classroom. TDH says that one Sam Banks decided on a list of recommended books that accompanied the new curriculum.

      And no, there's no evidence that Sam Banks was stupid. But TDH notes that the man had never taught elementary school and likely had little idea about the gaps in his schools. This is called ignorance, perhaps even culpable ignorance.

      TDH doesn't say how he measured readability back in the day. Now you can cut and paste text into online tools, like the one at, which scores this blog entry at just shy of a 9th grade level. Given your comment, I am highly dubious that you're reading at TDH blog level. But at least you're highly dubious. I hope this doesn't lead to alienation and despair.

    3. "How do we know there are gaps without a standard?"

      By looking at the available evidence? Mandatory testing has been done in the states (most states? all states?) for a long time now. There is plenty of evidence of the gap. You don't need a national standard to see it.

    4. Isn't the mandatory test a standard?

    5. No, Common Core doesn't mandate testing, or how it is done. No Child Left Behind did that.

    6. Who said anything about Common Core? You cannot have a standard without a test of some sort to meaure whether it has or has not been met. This is true when determing whether a piece of lumber meets a quality standard or a fourth grader meets a geometry standard.

  3. From Layton's story:

    "The pair of education advocates had a big idea, a new approach to transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008, many of the nation’s top politicians and education leaders had lined up in support.

    "But that wasn’t enough. The duo needed money — tens of millions of dollars, at least — and they needed a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.

    "So they turned to the richest man in the world.

    "On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’s sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality."


    Somerby's continuing misrepresentation of Gates' role:

    "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."

    No, Bob. Uniform national standards were not thought up by Gates. It was an idea presented to him, that apparently required much persuasion before he climbed aboard.

    Now before Bobfans jump in with, "That has nothing to do with the point he is making," it has EVERYTHING to do with it.

    Among many misrepresentations of what Common Core actually is, Bob is trying to portray it as a crackpot idea cooked up by a college dropout with no expertise in education, but with billions of dollars to force it down the throats of every school in America.

    1. Shorter 11:58

      "Bob says Gates, with his billions, took the initiative to create the Common Core."

      And please, do not accuse Bob of saying Gates invented the Common Core.

    2. Ok, so maybe Bob is being too hard on Bill Gates and his well meaning attempts to reform education. But can we at least all agree that Common Core or any change in the current standards will not address the "gaps" that exist now?

    3. Who said standards aren't the cause of gaps in the first place?

    4. No, we cannot all agree on that. Setting uniform national standards for what each child should be learning at each grade level is an important necessary first step in closing the achievement gap for all students.

      I don;'t see how you can begin to address the "achievement gap" without some sort of uniform standards.

      As for "any change in the current standards", well, there ARE no current standards, at least on a uniform basis. Every school district in America is free to set their own, which is why, until we have uniform standards and expectations, any other attempt to solve the achievement gap will be futile.

    5. ". . . why, until we have uniform standards and expectations, any other attempt to solve the achievement gap will be futile."

      This is a bullshit excuse for not even trying, 12:58. The problem presented by "the gaps" is so complex that you throw the kitchen sink at it, including, as I think the Howler will suggest, materials with grade-level or near grade-level concepts written at lower reading levels, rather than making students hate education even more by holding them in lower grades with younger kids or conceding little accomplishment with promotion even though the materials could hardly be read. That, of course, means more money; if we perceive this to be a matter of national importance, then the Federal Government should help the states fund it.

      There may be many things that can be done without formal national standards, which we have managed to live without for 150 years or so. In fact, there are informal national standards because states learn and borrow from each other, have long used national tests,use materials published nationally, and, generally, do not differ much in their standards even if they may have been written locally.

      Diane Ravitch has made a telling point that, while many of them seem perfectly acceptable, Common Core as national standards was not subjected to the formal vetting process that national and standards organizations require. Formalized national standards may well have valuable aspects, and Somerby has expressly recognized that, but as a matter of pure logic there is nothing they do to address the gaps. This is an important point that I have seen only on this blog.

    6. No, UL. What is truly bullshit excuse for doing nothing is Somerby's utterly ignorant out of hand dismissal of Common Core -- or setting any standards at all for the skills each child should achieve at the end of each grade level.

      My God, man, how can you expect to know if kids are learning anything if you have no standards to measure them by?

      Here's another thing you don't quite get. Common Core hasn't been mandated. It is strictly voluntary. You can adopt them or not. You can adopt them, then opt out.

      And did it ever occur to you that Diane Ravitch might be full of bullshit, too? Or do you seldom question anything you read?

    7. Here's some more from Layton's story:

      The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes.

      TDH quotes Layton as saying that Gates paid to make national standards happen, from actually writing standards to smoothing the political road to their adoption. Are you going to quibble now about whether Gates' actions constitute creation and sponsorship?

      Who is it that thinks that the idea of standards sprung from Gates' skull? It's not TDH; it's not Layton; it's not Gates. The first quotes the second who quotes the last as seeing himself "investing" in such "new ideas."

      The idea that TDH thinks Gates is a crackpot who cooked up a crazy idea and backed it with his billions to force everyone to adopt it? That one belongs to you, not TDH, who makes Gates out to be a rube, "the perfect mark," who "got conned" by educationists.

    8. "What is truly bullshit excuse for doing nothing is Somerby's utterly ignorant out of hand dismissal of Common Core -- or setting any standards at all for the skills each child should achieve at the end of each grade level."

      He doesn't dismiss it out of hand. He simply wondered aloud if it could possibly achieve its lofty goals in the way it was presented. Clearly, it can't.

      I went to grade school in the 1970's and early 80's, and we had these things called "report cards." I don't know if you had them at your school, but we got them every 6 weeks and had to take them home for our parents to sign. So even then, in the days before widespread mandatory testing, we had "standards to measure" our progress by. Not having a national standard doesn't mean having no standards at all. And "voluntary" national standards is the first step towards mandatory ones, you should know that. School districts that don't adopt the "voluntary" standards will face pressure from their parents' groups to justify why they haven't adopted them, especially if they are higher standards ("why aren't you teaching our kids up to these higher standards???" "Umm, well, you see...your kids are too dumb..." uh huh...).

    9. Deadrat, you've made a lot of feeble attempts to re-write Somerby to deny that he doesn't have a single clue of what he is talking about.

      But "TDH . . . makes Gates out to be a rube, "the perfect mark," who "got conned" by educationists" takes the cake.

      And if you truly believe that is what Somerby is saying, then you aren't helping him. In fact, you've just made him look even more ignorant and that is indeed a high bar to clear.

      Whatever demon you need to turn Bill and Melinda Gates into to suit your flailing argument of a grand conspiracy to force uniform standards upon our nation's schools, making them out to be Ma and Pa Kettle getting fleeced by the city slickers is really laughable.

    10. Anonymous @10:57P,

      I'm not trying to help TDH, and I'm not trying to hurt him. Your namesake at 11:58A has told himself and us a story that TDH has portrayed Gates as a billionaire trying to force his own crackpot idea (i.e., common core) on pubic education. This isn't so, and to find that out, the two of you need only go back and read what TDH has written. Why do you think I put quotation marks around "the perfect mark" and "got conned"? In other words, this is not a matter of believing what words TDH has written. It's actually what he wrote.

      Now you've extended the story: you complain that I've made out that the Gates foundation is part of a conspiracy (and a "grand" one at that). I'm not (and certainly TDH isn't). All of this is right out in the open. TDH even praises Layton for describing how everyone up and down the political spectrum is taking the "swag."

      There's no charge (neither mine nor TDH's) that Bill and Melinda are demons who themselves conjured up the mephitic incantations called "Common Core" and who funded a grand conspiracy to force it upon public schools. You've made this up. TDH thinks that Gates knows nothing about public schools, and that he got conned into spending his money to push a flawed program.

      Now he's certainly right that Gates knows nothing from experience about public schools. And maybe TDH is right or maybe he doesn't have a single clue when he talks about the flaws in the Common Core.

      If you want to explain this cluelessness, I, for one, would be happy to listen. For your made-up stories, not so much.

  4. OMB (Still Wondering What the Heck BOB is Writing About)

    "How would tougher “standards”—a more challenging course of study—address the nation’s large achievement gaps?"

    Why didn't anyone notice that failure to grasp "1 + 1 is 2" is an early sign of the math gap and that expecting a child to know the answer does nothing to reduce the gap?

    Which privileged beings pursuing Big Scratch didn't see gaps would result when you divided schools into grade levels based on age?


    1. KZ, you are really looking stupid now. This is an important topic that basically only The Howler is pursuing. You should have some filter that will tell you to be clever and when to shut up.

    2. Only Bob Somerby is "pursuing" Common Core?

      Are you joking? You must be. Either that, or you don't read very many stories about education.

    3. Anonymous @6:29P, another troll left behind.

    4. If you cannot answer our questions, u.l. it is you who display ingorance, not ourselves.

      As for BOB being the only one to address the question of achievement gaps, that is fatuous nonsense.

      If you mean he is the only one asking what do tougher standards do to erase the existing gaps, you may be right. Because the question is so preposterous on its face only a complete idiot would ask it.


  5. Why are sixth graders reading at first grade level in sixth grade? There already is a program for them (first grade). Create a separate "first grade" for older kids who continue to fail first grade to continue the appropriate age association with each grade, but get the first graders out of sixth grade.

    1. Is that idea in the Common Core standards?

    2. Perhaps it was the idea behind calling something "sixth grade." Otherwise you could just call it "11 year old's Group."

    3. @ 12:50 Yesterrday Somerby covered a piece called "The Great Divide." For some reason or other Somerby barely touched upon solutions suggested in that article, which included taking students who are behind peers their own age and putting them in classes aimed at children performing at their grade level.

    4. "Is that idea in the Common Core standards?"

      How could it be? They're just a bunch of benchmarks, not a prescription for attaining them. Achieving those benchmarks is left as an exercise for the implementers.

  6. National standards ? Globalization of Higher Education

  7. There is no consequence for failure at home, in the neighborhood, or in society so none of these solutions will work. Waste of effort.

    1. Yes Bill Gates and Michael Dell proved that by dropping out of college. Look were all his hard work getting a degree from Harvard got Somerby compared to those scofflaws.

  8. One year, we conducted a study of the “readability” of the various books in the city’s social studies and science curricula.

    The original "readability" measures were devised by Rudolf Flesch, who gained fame in 1955 by writing, "Why Johnny Can't Read.' This book argued that phonics is a better way to teach reading than the whole word method. This debate is still going on, as you can see from the reviews and comments attached to Flesch's book, "Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools."

    I think using the best method of teaching is more important than a lot of other things, such as Common Core, School Lunch, racial breakdown, etc. I am not convinced that the Educational Establishment does an effective job of selecting the best teaching approach.

  9. A good rap with a ruler on the thumbs beats a very rough rule of thumb, nun might say.

  10. "According to the Common Core, all kids should get taught the same sixth-grade math—but we need to make it harder! "

    According to Bob Somerby you can attribute things to Common Core
    that aren't there and your readers will barely take notice!