Part 2—Two kids in sixth grade: As we start, let's imagine two great kids on the first day of sixth grade.
They may live thousands of miles from each other, on the east and west coasts. They may live in different communities in some individual state.
They may attend different schools within the same school district. Who knows! They may be sitting next to each other, in the same classroom, on this first day of sixth grade.
We'll call them Student A and Student B. We'll also tell you this:
According to reliable testing, Student A is working two years above "grade level" in reading and math. By way of contrast, Student B is two years below grade level in reading and math.
In this way, we've described a four-year "achievement gap" between these two sixth graders. For the sake of clarity, let's memorialize them like this:
Two public school sixth graders:For the record, the public schools of this sprawling nation are full of kids who are working "above grade level." Our schools are also full of kids who are working "below grade level."
Student A: Two years above grade level in reading and math
Student B: Two years below grade level
Having established this obvious point, let's return to some of the things Arne Duncan recently said.
Duncan served as Barack Obama's secretary of education and as his basketball buddy. He recently wrote an op-ed column in the Washington Post.
After making some comments about test score gains—comments which seemed to make little chronological sense—Duncan offered these thoughts about so-called "learning standards," a term he didn't define:
DUNCAN (4/2/18): None of our progress happened because we stood still. It happened because we confronted hard truths, raised the bar and tried new things. Beginning in 2002, federal law required annual assessments tied to transparency. The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps, even if they didn’t always have the courage or capacity to address them.According to Duncan, public schools have "raised the bar" over the past ten to sixteen years. Specifically, "almost every state has raised standards," Duncan said. He was referring to the various states' "learning standards," a term he didn't define.
A decade ago, learning standards were all over the place. Today, almost every state has raised standards.
What the heck did Duncan mean by his reference to "learning standards?" In part 1 of this report, we showed you one example.
We linked you to the "State Curriculum" for the state of Maryland, "the document that identifies the Maryland Content Standards and aligns them with the Maryland Assessment Program."
That document includes "broad, measurable statements about what students should know and be able to do" in each grade, from Pre-K through Grade 8. We also linked you to Maryland's "content standards" for Grade 6 math—"broad, measurable statements about what students should know and be able to do" by the time he or she has been taught Grade 6 math.
Simply put, that's the Grade 6 math curriculum for Maryland's public schools. That's the sort of thing Duncan means when he talks about the various states' "learning standards."
Plainly, Duncan thinks it's a good idea for the various states to have such "learning standards." He also seems to think it's good that the states have made these curriculum requirements harder in the past ten years—have "raised the bar" by "raising" their learning (or content) standards.
This sounds like a perfectly sensible thing. On the face of things, who could possibly object to the idea of "raising standards?"
It seems that Duncan is making good sense! That said, we refer you to our two imaginary students, between whom there exists a yawning "achievement gap."
Forget about higher standards for now. When we think about those two students, does it actually make sense to have grade-by-grade "standards" at all?
More specifically, should a pair of sixth-graders with that four-year gap confront the same curriculum in math? Does Arne Duncan's high-minded prescription actually make any sense?
We would say it doesn't! This raises question about the standards which are maintained by the nation's "education experts," who have mainly been expert, in recent decades, at noticing virtually nothing at all.
Should those sixth-graders, with that four-year gap, be taught the same math curriculum? Should they be taught the same way in other subject areas?
We'd say the obvious answer is no. We'll offer a quick two-point overview:
First, consider the challenges which may arise in the assignment of textbooks or reading assignments in general.
Student B, who's two years below grade level in reading, won't be able to read and understand the same books Student A can read. In a sensible universe, these two kids will not be given the same reading assignments in areas like history and science. Nor will they likely choose the books they read for pleasure from the same pile of books.
That four-year gap creates all kinds of challenges in the general realm of reading assignments in various subjects. Now let's consider math:
Those students are sitting side-by-side on the first day of sixth grade. Should they encounter the same lessons in math, drawn from the same set of "learning standards?"
We'll answer your question with one of our own. Imagine two additional students. This time, they're juniors in high school:
Two public school high school juniors:Now it's the start of a new school year. Should Student C and Student D receive the same Latin instruction this year just because they're in the same grade? On what planet would this question even need to be asked?
Student C: Took Latin 3 last year; got an A-minus
Student D: Took Latin 1 and flunked
As with Latin, so too with math. Our original students, A and B, are light-years apart in math achievement and understanding. You'd have to be crazy, out of your mind, to confront them with the same math instruction.
Either that, or you'd have to be an "education expert" within our floundering culture.
A four-year gap at the start of sixth grade is a very large gap. That said, gigantic achievement gaps are found all through our sprawling nation's public schools.
In yesterday's report, we showed you the gap which exists between the average student in Baltimore City and the average student in nearby Howard County. The gap between those students is vast.
You ain't seen diddly yet! The gaps get much larger than that...
Tomorrow: Lexington, Mass. meets St. Louis, Missouri
Still coming: Horrific gaps on the Naep. Luckily, no one cares!