kitchen table math, the sequel: Hiding in Plain Sight

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hiding in Plain Sight

On April 28th NAEP results for 2008 were released. Sam Dillon has an article in the NY Times where he uses these results to bludgeon NCLB for failing to close the black/white achievement gap.

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President George W Bush’s frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.

The article provides some great graphs that show black/white children's scores for reading and math for the last 37 years. Interestingly, the graphs show steady improvements for both subjects and both demographics that Dillon ignores. James Taranto has a provocative response questioning whether Dillon would have been happier had the data shown static white achievement and increasing black achievement.

So minority kids are doing better than before. But because white kids are also doing better, and therefore the "gap" remains, the Times suggests the law is a failure. By this measure, it would have been better to pass a law that only benefits minorities than one that benefits everyone.

To be fair, closing the racial gap was one of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind. But what a strange, uncritical attitude the Times has toward the federal government when it reports with a straight face that the law is a failure because it seems to have helped children of all races, rather than observing that this calls into question whether the goal made any sense in the first place.


It made me think of a more problematic question. The graphs show a gap that's been pretty stubborn for 37 years and although the article was written to criticize NCLB as ineffective law since it hasn't closed the gap it was written to address, there's a bigger story here. The only significant gap reduction follows school desegregation and then, essentially nothing. In fact you could use the graphs to make a pretty good case that the last 37 years have seen nothing but improvement in math while in reading, NCLB seems to have reversed a bit of white decline and black stagnation. The real question to ponder here is why the gap seems immune to change.

You certainly can't claim there hasn't been a lot of effort expended in trying to close the gap. I would argue that much of the curricular turmoil of the last two generations is driven in large part by these very attempts. Federal and state involvement in local schools has also been accelerated by this effort. The evidence says that pushing on teacher quality, curriculum, administration, pedagogy, unions, pay, charters, vouchers, and everything else in the kitchen sink has accomplished little by way of closing the gap.

The gap represents about a three year difference in grade level. Could it be that having classrooms populated with kids exhibiting this gap, being fed a curriculum designed for the median student in the room is a problem? The one thing I've never seen addressed (except in very limited settings) is this curricular mismatch.

The graphics lay it out starkly. These are two completely different sets of kids. Three years difference is huge. Keeping them together in the name of racial equality or equal access is never going to close the gap. Everything we've done is piddling on the edges of a conflagration. If you really mean to close the gap then that educational goal has to stand in line ahead of our social goals until it's fixed, doesn't it?

Could it be that the slopes we see on these graphs are due to all the piddling around the edges while the gap is due to ignoring the obvious need to provide appropriate curricula? Could it be true that the shallow slope is an artifact of having an inappropriate mix in the classroom. And finally, would the slopes of both demographics improve with more appropriate placement?

Once a child is identified as being three years behind it shouldn't matter whether they are purple, from the planet Ork; they need placement that is appropriate to get them back on track. Anything less is just child abuse disguised as political correctness.

stagnation at the top - Fordham report
Tracking: Can It Benefit Low Achieving Children?
Linda Valli on tracking in 5 Catholic high schools, 1
Linda Valli on tracking in 5 Catholic high schools, 2
"school commitment" in Valli's study of tracking in Catholic high schools

7th grade depression starts in 1st grade

ability grouping in Singapore
characteristics of schools where SAT scores did not decline
The Other Crisis in American Education by Daniel Singal
Hiding in Plain Sight: grouping & the achievement gap
tracking: first random-assignment study

SAT equivalence tables
SAT I Individual Score Equivalents
SAT I Mean Score Equivalents

chickens have come home to roost
the deathless meme of the high performing school
Allison on the naturals


SwitchedonMom said...

"Once a child is identified as being three years behind it shouldn't matter whether they are purple, from the planet Ork; they need placement that is appropriate to get them back on track. Anything less is just child abuse disguised as political correctness."

And yet where I live (Montgomery County, MD) the drive is precisely toward heterogeneous classrooms, and away from homogeneous grouping. They they are rolling out something called The Seven Keys to College Readiness ( Benchmarks are being set that are unrealistic for some students, and too low for others. Advocates for who call for more homogeneous grouping and a differentiated gifted curriculum are painted as elitists and even racists.

Cheryl said...

Brilliant. And if I were not attempting to teach more than 30 kids that range from special ed and English learners to highly gifted all in the same classroom, perhaps I would be a more effective teacher.

But that would make sense.

Anonymous said...

They need placement to get them on track long before they are three years behind. It's hard to make that up. I know Montgomery County and the reason for heterogeneous grouping is highly political; mostly Asian and white kids in the higher-achieving groups and too many black and Hispanic kids in the lower groups. Heterogeneous grouping allows this to be disguised and is congruent with the ed-school philosophy. No one is willing to acknowledge that the epidemic of very young single moms in the black community might have something to do with it; all of the bad ideas/behaviors from the sixties and seventies have come home to roost. Of course there is also the continued influx in low-skill immigrants who do not speak English at home.

EVERY CHILD SHOULD BE TAUGHT AT HIS/HER OWN LEVEL AND BE EXPOSED TO A SEQUENCED, CONTENT-RICH CURRICULUM. Project Follow-Through seems to have done the best job; I'd like to see it what it could do on a larger scale. At this point, there's not much to lose.

Anonymous said...

Also, perhaps if kids were grouped homogeneously when first arriving in school, more would be taught at their level and there might be fewer kids found to be several years behind, learning disabled, ADHD etc., especially if they were explicitly taught phonics, spelling, arithmetic and the content, skills and behaviors they need to be successful. Radical idea, right?

Paul B said...

It would certainly be great to catch kids before they got three years behind but I'm not sure you ever catch all of them. My district, for example has about 30% turnover every year. In my experience, all of these kids are behind and thrust into your room with no notice. None!

It might very well be that their 'behindness' is actually a manifestation of their transience. I did a study a few years ago and found that kids who were in our system from K-8 were a minimum of two years ahead of the transient kids who had been in our system 1 year or less. Stability alone closes the nefarious gap but it doesn't come from the latest ed school fad so it's discounted. It's also way outside of our control.

Paul B said...

I think another subtlety that is perhaps not so obvious here is that the issue of the gap is not isolated to schools with gaps. The gap and its solutions dominates educational leadership, i.e. it is the stress driving change.

That means its effects as a key driver are embedded in textbooks, state standards, ed schools, PD, research, etc. Everything pays some tribute to the gap! This is why some exurb with an extraordinary student spending ratio and a successful math program, all of a sudden needs to adopt a new math program. Scratch around and you might find that shiny new program was developed as a gap killer and has become this year's buzz.

Gaposis is pervasive even if Gapitis is not.

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, this is one of my campaigns around these parts. I'm going to be pushing for establishing a direct instruction (small caps)/Core Knowledge (large caps) option for parents who want it: "proficiency grouping" (maybe that term will work better), teacher-centered, content-rich -- and larger class size.

I have to work out the figures, but I think that eventually you could reduce spending simply by offering a larger-class-size option parents could choose.

You'd still have super-small class sizes for the constructivist classes.

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't looked at the graphs yet, but I distinctly recall the achievement gap narrowing during the Reagan administration years, I believe it was ----- ?

Catherine Johnson said...

Check it out.

I believe the first and only random-assignment study of grouping is out.

Peer Effects and the Impact of Tracking

Paul B said...

The 70's and 80's (Reagan) showed pretty dramatic narrowing but this has been attributed more to the effects of school desegregation than to anything that was done with respect to teaching methods or content.

This alone had more effect on closing the gap than anything happening 'inside' the schools in the subsequent 20 years.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh, OK!

Didn't realize you'd already covered that (duh)

Thanks --

I just got a post up about the first random-assignment tracking study

pretty amazing

Catherine Johnson said...

I would also like to see SPED placements factored in. My friend O., in LA, told me that her high-functioning son, who has now graduated from high school, was always in SPED classes filled with African American students.

Same thing here: I once asked a mom I know, whose daughter is SPED, if she know "how the black kids are doing."

She said, "I know how they're doing because they're in classes with my daughter."

Same deal with Christian, who was classified SPED throughout his entire K-12 career (& is one of the smarter people I know).

After the desegregation of the 1970s, how much re-segregation occurred via special ed placement.

That's one of the problems NCLB was intended to address, I believe: the SPED kids had to achieve, too.

Of course, in some districts this was interpreted to mean that kids with Down syndrome had to be on grade level (a teacher friend told me that was true in her district).

When we met with an education attorney, he told us that NCLB "is a special education law."

Catherine Johnson said...

"they are rolling out"

I am sick of this phrase, which I had never heard until this year.

My district is endlessly rolling things out. They roll out so much stuff the school board members are starting to talk about rolling stuff out.

Another word I never want to hear again: "initiative."

My district rolls out initiatives right and left.

A couple of months ago the superintendent's letter included the observation that: "excitement abounds throughout the district over recent and upcoming initiatives."

We're reading this in the middle of the recession-slash-depression & at the beginning of the budget process.

The only way to make "excitement abounds" a true statement would be to delete "excitement" and insert "dread."

Catherine Johnson said...

Paul - I hope you don't mind my dropping all the other links into your post -- take them out if they're a distraction.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see what happens in the SPED placement area if all kids are homogeneously grouped, starting in kindergarten, and taught phonics, math etc. explicitly. I think a lot of SPED is just kids who haven't been taught properly, reading especially, and are several years behind as a consequence. These are often the low-SES kids who started school lacking in verbal and pre-reading skills, anyway. Why not try doing it right the first time?