Friday, June 29, 2012

Schools should work to widen, not narrow, the achievement gap

    If there is one common value shared by virtually everyone involved in education today it's that we ought to try to narrow various achievement gaps in education.
    AS usual the general consensus is wrong. Our goal as a society should be to widen the achievement gap. Yes, I dare to say it! We should challenge all children, and the natural result will be the widening of the achievement gap.
    A typical kindergarten class will be made up of children who are not yet reading but who will know their letters and understand print orientation. Most children will be able to count and will recognize simple two-digit numbers.
    Yet in this class of 5-year-olds there will be tremendous variation. A few students are likely to be able to recognize and read some words, and perhaps one student will be able to actually read at about the second-grade level. A few students will be able to do simple addition and subtraction, and perhaps one student will be able to do simple multiplication or division -- so again functioning at about the second-grade level.
    On the lower end will be students who can't even recognize their letters or numbers and who can't even count to 10. These students are functioning at the level of a typical three-year-old.
    So in a typical group of entering 5-year-old kindergarteners there is already a three or four year achievement gap. That's pretty amazing, and of course a strong argument against mixed ability classrooms, as the better students need to be taught a first- or second-grade curriculum while the laggards need remedial help.
    So what are the causes of this huge achievement gap that everyone is trying so hard to narrow? Three really: age, environment, and IQ.
    The Entering Kindergarten report I linked to earlier points out that early reading and math skills are closely associated with age. Older students are more advanced on entering kindergarten than younger students. This is an achievement gap that will fade with time.
    Then there's IQ. There is no question IQ exists, and most education experts say that efforts to raise IQ after age 5 are likely to be fruitless. There is a tremendous genetic component to IQ, such that even if every child were to be given an identical environment there remain a large IQ difference, albeit a smaller one. Thus by the very nature of IQ children with higher IQs will learn more quickly, and if given challenging work the achievement gap can only grow each year.
    Next up is environment. This is where the tinkerers believe that they can make a difference, and to some degree they are correct. But what is environment? It includes whether mother drank or did drugs during pregnancy, whether the child is in a two-parent family, whether the parents talked and interacted with the child in infancy and a host of other factors that occur prior to the child's third birthday. Studies show a very dramatic difference in the way children are raised and after-the-fact efforts at remediation are going to do very little good. Unless we are prepared to put hidden cameras in every home and then jail mothers who fail to talk to their children while changing their diapers, these environmental differences will not go away.
    All of us like to think of ourselves as good parents who promote our children's education. I taught my children basic reading skills at age 4, for example, because Joan Beck said I should. A lot of children aren't ready to read at age 4, but many are. Every parent should at least make the effort to teacher their pre-kindergartener to read.
    Without a doubt parental encouragement is helpful to children. During a long car drive when my kids asked what started World War II, I began my lecture with the failure of the Acien Regime and the calling of the Estates General. After a while Jinny chimed in, "Don't forget the Schlieffen Plan!" I doubt my children remember a word of it, but deep down a seed is buried that some of these events aren't as simple as the textbooks might claim. I can't doubt that it makes some difference, but how exactly do our schools expect to close achievement gaps based on differences in parenting styles?
    And sometimes it's only partly parenting styles. For years I would greet my young son with a math problem. Obviously the type of behavior that a "tiger" parent might engage in. But I could only do it because my son liked to "play math." If he didn't have the natural ability, all the parenting skill in the world wouldn't have made him an advanced student.
    Currently our schools attempt to narrow the achievement gap by refusing to teach the better students. Students who arrive at kindergarten able to read and do basic math will nevertheless be forced to sit and be instructed in basic letter recognition. In spite of this, the four-year reading gap that exists in kindergarten will grow to 10 or more years by fifth grade, as some of the better students start reading at the college level, despite the schools' best efforts to keep them down. The math achievement gap is far less, since reading tends to be self-taught while math requires outside instruction. Thus the schools' refusal to teach helps keep the fifth-grade math achievement gap down to five or six years.
    The sad fact is that if our schools would stop abusing our children and instead would provide each child with a challenging curriculum, many students would complete their high-school course work by the age of 12 or 13 and be ready to start of college-level work. A much larger group would earn their high school diplomas by age 15. There is tremendous social utility in providing just as much education as we can to each student during the 12 years of free education that they are entitled to from our public schools. As a nation, the smarter our citizens are the better off we all are.
    But we've got to accept that schools can't change children's IQs. They can't change their homes. If each child is truly challenged, then the achievement should be getting larger each and every year.
    Show me a school without much of an achievement gap, and I'll show you a school that doesn't provide much of an education. The greater the gap, the greater the educational opportunities. It's as simple as that.

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