GAPS AND STANDARDS: The rude bridge confronts The Gateway Arch!


Part 3—Huge achievement gaps:
Way back in April 1775, the so-called "war of western aggression" began with the famous Battle of Lexington and Concord.

If we're going to stick to the facts, the famous "rude bridge that arched the flood" was actually found in Concord. That said, the first shots of the battle were fired in Lexington, located right next door.

That was 1775. About 1100 miles to the west, the famous Gateway Arch of St. Louis marks a later part of our history.

When the memorial was proposed in 1933, it was envisioned as "a suitable and permanent public memorial to the men [sic] who made possible the western territorial expansion of the United States."

President Jefferson was specifically named. So were "his aides Livingston and Monroe," along with "the great explorers, Lewis and Clark, and the hardy hunters, trappers, frontiersmen [sic] and pioneers who contributed to the territorial expansion and development of these United States."

The famous rude bridge is where it all began. The nation's development proceeded through the site of the present-day Gateway Arch.

That development hasn't always gone perfectly smoothly. Consider some of the punishing gaps between those locales today.

Today, Lexington is an upscale suburban community with a population of roughly 32,000. Right next door, Concord is a town of roughly 18,000.

St. Louis is a struggling city with a population a bit above 300,000 and a major league baseball team.

Each of these communities runs its own school system. When Professor Reardon and his associates performed their statistical analysis of every public school district in the country, they recorded a rather large income gap between these well-known locales:
Median family income of students:
Lexington, Mass.: $163,000
Concord, Mass.: $164,000
St. Louis, Mo: $27,000
They also recorded different "racial" demographics, as shown below:
Demographics of student populations:
Lexington, Mass: 59 percent white; 4 percent black; 4 percent Hispanic; 33 percent Asian-American
Concord, Mass.: 81 percent white; 5 percent black; 4 percent Hispanic; 10 percent Asian-American
St. Louis, Mo.: 13 percent white; 81 percent black; 4 percent Hispanic; 2 percent Asian-American
We're offering these demographics because you go to war with the demographics you have. Most of our data can be found within the graphics supplied as part of this New York Times report about the Reardon study.

The income gap displayed above is extremely large. The demographics differ substantially too.

Now we come to the gap on which we're focusing all this week. We come to the so-called "achievement gap" between the students in these school systems, Grades 3-8 inclusive:
Where the average student stood:
Lexington, Mass.: 3.8 years above grade level
Concord, Mass.: 3.2 years above grade level
St. Louis, Mo.: 2.1 years below grade level
According to Professor Reardon, the average student in Lexington, Mass. was working 3.8 years above grade level at the time of his recent study. That figure was derived from a study of the test scores of all students in grades 3-8 in two subjects, reading and math.

We'd regard that figure as highly approximate, but also as highly instructive. Nor is it entirely clear what a person means by saying that any student is "3.8 years above grade level" in reading or in math, unless that person offers an explanation.

We don't mean any of that as a criticism of Reardon's work. In fact, his work strikes us as deeply important, and as highly instructive.

As even our experts can probably see, those numbers describes a humongous "achievement gap" between the average student in Lexington, Mass. and her or her counterpart in St. Louis. Taking those numbers at face value, they seem to say that the average student near the rude bridge is working 5.9 years above the average student beneath the Arch, quite possibly by the beginning of sixth grade.

Can the gap possibly be that large? Does any such statement even make sense?

We'll leave those questions to the historians, assuming that any will survive Mr. Trump's Coming War. For today, we'll only say this:

Those numbers define an enormous gap between different groups of American kids. They also suggest that our "education experts," from Arne Duncan right on down, are just what they've seemed to be for the past many years—crazy/nuts out of their heads.

In his recent column for the Washington Post, Duncan applauded the idea of grade-by-grade "learning standards." Simply put, the adoption of such "content standards" mean that every student in the sixth grade should be taught the same "sixth grade" math curriculum.

This idea will seem to make perfect sense—unless you've been alive on this planet at some point in the past many years. Unless you understand the obvious—that gaps like this exist:
Where the average student stood, perhaps at the start of sixth grade:
Lexington, Mass.: 3.8 years above grade level
St. Louis, Mo.: 2.1 years below grade level
Please understand! Those are the numbers Reardon devised for the average student in each school district.

Applying a bit of common sense, we can assume that the higher-achieving students in Lexington surpass the less successful St. Louis kids by a "gap" of more than 5.9 years!

Can gaps that gigantic really exist? What can such a claim even mean? These are the sorts of questions we're leaving to the survivors.

For today, you only need to puzzle about the oddness of Arne Duncan, who thinks, in the face of gaps like these, that every American sixth graders—Bob and Billy and Mary and Susan—should be taught the same math curriculum when they're in sixth grade.

Warning! By now, your lizard may be thrashing about, looking for ways to deny what is blindingly obvious. Your lizard may be telling you that Lexington is a crazy outlier—a town of a mere 32,000 souls whose walloping achievement levels tell us nothing about the wider country on either side of The Arch.

It's true that the Lexington Public Schools is one of the nation's highest-performing school districts. But Lexington is hardly alone. Just in Middlesex County, Mass., it's joined by a wealth of upper-income, high-performing districts:
Selected school districts in Middlesex County, Mass.:
Lexington: 3.8 years above grade level ($163,000 median income)
Carlisle: 3.5 years above ($192,000)
Westford: 3.4 years above ($138,000)
Sudbury: 3.3 years above ($180,000)
Boxborough: 3.3 years above ($122,000)
Concord: 3.2 years above ($164,000)
Winchester: 3.2 years above ($177,000)
Belmont: 3.2 years above ($121,000)
Newton: 3.1 years above ($147,000)
Acton: 3.1 years above ($149,000)
Weston: 3.1 years above ($182,000)
Boxborough and Carlisle are very small towns. (Students in Carlisle move on from middle school to Concord-Carlisle High.)

That said, Newton is a community of roughly 85,000 people. The population of those eleven towns adds up to roughly 300,000 people, roughly the size of St. Louis. And we aren't even including low-income Arlington, Mass. (median income, $106,000), whose slacker average kid is only 2.8 years above grade level, according to Reardon's study—a meager 4.9 years above his counterpart under the Arch, perhaps at the start of sixth grade.

Arlington's population is roughly 42,000. In Middlesex County, it continues from there, through somewhat less affluent towns like Natick, Reading, Wakefield and Melrose. The achievement gaps between the kids in those towns and those in St. Louis are only a bit less huge than the gaps we've already defined.

Nor is St. Louis alone among low-income districts. A sample of other struggling districts can be seen here:
Selected low-income school districts:
Buffalo: 1.9 years below grade level
Milwaukee: 1.9 years below
Cleveland: 2.0 years below
St. Louis: 2.1 years below
Memphis: 2.1 years below
Detroit: 2.3 years below
Camden, N.J.: 2.4 years below
Syracuse: 2.5 years below
Meanwhile, raw numbers from urban districts may disguise the gaps which exist within. According to Reardon's study, major gaps existed within the D.C. Public Schools, and in other such districts:
Where the average student stood:
White students, DCPS: 2.7 years above grade level
Black students, DCPS: 2.2 years below grade level
Hispanic students: 1.4 years below grade level
All these data can be found within the New York Times graphics. According to Reardon's demographics, an achievement gap of 4.9 years existed within these D.C. schools. (Again, we're offering you the demographics we have.)

Tomorrow, we're going to turn to the Naep for other daunting figures. We'll leave you today with the basic question we're asking all week:

Given the giant achievements gaps which obtain in our sprawling nation's schools, on what planet would it make sense to teach the same math curriculum to every Grade 6 student? Also this, coming on Friday:

What kind of creature is Arne Dncan? What kinds of creatures are we?

Tomorrow: Gaps on the Naep

Twenty miles outside St. Louis: Outside St. Louis, largely to the west, lies the largely suburban St. Louis County.

According to the leading authority on the county, its population is roughly one million souls. It's served by twenty-four different school systems, the largest of which serves approximately 140,000 Missouri citizens and was profiled by Reardon as shown:
Selected Missouri school districts:
Rockwood R-VI: 1.6 years above grade level ($118,000)
St. Louis: 2.1 years below grade level ($30,000)
That's also a huge achievement gap at the start of sixth grade!

Should all those kids in all those schools be taught the same math in sixth grade? If so, on what planet? Do our nation's top experts live there?


  1. The underlying problem is centralized responsibility without authority. The Federal Dept. of Education has such a limited menu of things they can do. They can't evaluate teachers and administrators who are hired and fired. They can't deal with individual students, each of whom has a unique set of problems and potentials. All they can do is give out money and offer, or impose, some sort of sweeping program or approach.

    Bob points out that setting identical goals doesn't make sense. But, no uniform federal approach can make sense, either, for the same reason. There's too much difference between school districts and between individual students. IMHO it was a fundamental mistake to federalize education.

    1. But, according to Bob, educational achievement has skyrocketed since 1979, when the Dept of Education was created!

  2. "Should all those kids in all those schools be taught the same math in sixth grade?"

    Anyone should be able to take an advanced course, as advanced as they want, but, Bob, surely there has to be the minimal standard?

    1. Bob only asks the questions...he don't got no answers.

  3. From yesterday's post...

    Some liberals, perhaps including Bob, think the media was unfair to Hillary. OTOH some conservatives think the opposite. E.g., you can read Amy Chozick Exposes Hillary’s Groveling Press Corps for the POV that the media coverage was strongly biased in favor of Hillary.

    IMHO the conservative case is stronger.

    1. Based on the reporting, the squeaky clean Clinton Foundation was just the Dem version of Trump's scam charity.
      IMHO, you'd have to be a willful ignoramus to have missed that.

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  5. Perhaps the achievement gaps shown by the NAEP tests are just as ridiculous as the standards that Somerby attacks.

    Since the tests measure achievement relative to a standard (i.e. that defined by the NAEP), then perhaps the test should be designed to match the ability of each individual test taker. Thus, the so-called "gaps" will magically disappear. Better yet, why even bother with the test? Isn't this the logical conclusion of Somerby's anti-standards view?

    I'd like to take Somerby seriously as a thinker on public school education, but it's hard. Teachers are confronted with classrooms full of students with widely varying abilities. How to you teach to each student individually? Many schools offer advanced courses for higher achievers. Hello? Is Somerby aware of that? Teachers also face parents who demand accountability. How do you deal with that?

    So far, the only thing Somerby has brought to this discussion is to question the notion of having minimum standards (ridiculing those who advocate them). He has not offered a detailed philosophy on how you teach, nor how you deal with the problems and challenges of teaching in the real world. Not all of the people offering solutions are nefarious or politically motivated. Many are sincerely trying to help.

  6. A standard seems to me just a guide. For example, if a teacher is teaching reading to eighth graders, how would that teacher decide how to teach the students? There is a standard eighth grade reading level (devised by NAEP or others) that we hope eighth graders can achieve. This guides the teacher. Not all students will achieve this, of course, but it seems reasonable to try to help students attain this minimum level of proficiency. HOW a teacher goes about teaching students is another question. But shouldn't the *goal* be to perform at grade level?

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