GAPS AND STANDARDS: Gaps between two large school districts!

MONDAY, APRIL 23, 2018

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.

The Howard County (Md.) Public Schools, which enrolled roughly 51,000 students that year.
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.

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 students
Baltimore City: $36,000
Howard County: $118,000
The "income gap" is very large. We'd even call it huge.

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 populations
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
Each 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.

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 stood
Baltimore City: 1.5 years below grade level
Howard County: 1.8 years above grade level
Those average scores cover a sweep of six school years. They combine the average student's standing in reading and math.

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.


  1. "Should those students all be taught the same math program in sixth grade?"

    Huh? Are you suggesting different curricula and standards for the ghetto ("much less wealthy" in your version of Newspeak) and the suburbs? Nice, Bob. I suppose this, indeed, would be the ultimate liberal agenda.

    1. Tracking has been eliminated in many schools due to parent demand. It is considered elitist and it keeps lower achieving students out of college prep, AP and enriched classes, tracking them into low skilled occupations. There have been complaints that less skilled teachers are assigned to the lower tracks and that those tracks get fewer resources. They have been accused of just warehousing students while devoting attention to the upper track college bound students.

      The idea was that mixing all kids together would give lower performing kids exposure to higher performing kids who would do peer tutoring and encourage higher performance from their classmates.

      There is a futher concern that assigning lower performing kids to tracks is stigmatizing and results in diminished expectations that become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      Most teachers work with differences in achievement within a mixed classroom by breaking kids into learning groups and using different textbooks or materials with different groups. This places a greater burden on the teachers but allows movement from one group to another as kids progress, instead of locking them into tracks where they cannot learn from more advanced peers.

      It is unclear to me whether Duncan is proposing a single curriculum or whether he is proposing that the expectations for testing be higher -- harder tests not harder classes. But certainly, kids cannot learn something if they are not given the chance in their classes.

      In my daughter's district there was an ongoing argument about what age to introduce algebra. Asian American parents were upset that algebra was being delayed when it is introduced much earlier in Asian and European schools. The district felt that kids do better if given that material later on, waiting until more kids are ready for it. The parents of the more advanced students felt like their kids were being held back and denied the opportunity to go on to more advanced math in high school through earlier preparation. The district thought it would be harmful to kids to struggle and perhaps fail at something introduced too early. The parents said they would take that chance and that it was good for kids to struggle and fail and learn to work harder, learn persistence. Not all parents feel that way. Some try to protect their kids from failure and there is certainly such a thing as too much failure.

      So this is not an easy question. And it is not confined only to black kids in poor neighborhoods.

    2. Stupid, dumb, inane troll tricks, part 4 (not you, anon,).

  2. Students within a single school district or even in a single class can have differing levels of ability. So the problem isn't just between, for example, the Baltimore City Public Schools and the Howard County public schools. Students within the Baltimore City Public Schools have different levels of ability. So, if you teach to a particular standard there, you will have some students who fall behind and others who can overachieve. Just as a higher standard may cause underachieving students to fall further behind, a lower standard may hold back overachievers from reaching their full potential. This might suggest two classes, one for average students and one for higher achievers. This idea has been around for quite some time now, but obviously requires additional administrative and financial resources. And while teachers should be allowed a certain amount of independence to try things, many probably appreciate some guidance on how to do their job.

    While I don't think Duncan exactly says what Somerby claims here, he does talk about "raising standards." Duncan throws out a number of things, but not in any great detail.
    But one idea that he did mention to help students perform better is early intervention, pre-K and kindergarten. When I went to school, kindergarten was not part of the public school system; now, it is. That is an example of a "reform" that has probably had positive results.

    Somerby keeps questioning the idea of "reform" or "standards." Another of the reform ideas that Duncan discusses was the implementation of mandatory assessments. That presumably helps schools understand the very numbers that Somerby posts here.

    Ultimately, it isn't clear what Somerby is saying. Should there be no standards? Should there be different standards for different cases? Should we not try different things to help students perform better? Should the experimentation be left to teachers, or does the district have an interest in holding its schools accountable? How about the state? The Feds? I'm all for doing whatever makes the most sense. And I imagine things have changed a bit since Somerby last saw the inside of a classroom.

    1. Teachers don't get to do much experimentation in most school districts.

    2. I'm no expert, and I don't know how to judge whether your statement is true or not. My cousin introduced all kinds of innovations in the teaching of music in her school, including offering advanced courses in music theory. And this in a rural school district in my home state. These classes don't exist everywhere.

      It's a debate: how much freedom teachers have vs accountability from parents and officials. I don't think you can entirely dispense with accountability or standards altogether.

      One of my main points in my comment above was to ask Somerby what he is ultimately saying or suggesting. He calls reform and standards into question, and has done for a long time. His stance isn't clear. If he has a philosophy on teaching, it would be helpful for him to share that, taking into account all of the complicating factors that exist.

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