Closing the Achievement Gap, One Way or Another

The big education news this morning is that Rhode Island has won another Race to the Top grant, this time for early childhood education. Details will come later in the day, but it is another step in closing the so-called achievement gap between poor, disadvantaged students and those who, I suppose, are considered advantaged (middle-income, stable families, etc.). It’s, obviously, a desirable goal, but there are, as always, unintended consequences. For while our attempts to close the gap appear to be working–disadvantaged students are getting better–I’ve mentioned before that our normal or higher achieving students are getting worse in the process. In a piece in today’s Washington Post, Michael J. Petrilli and and Frederick M. Hess summarize the problem:

In 1996, Rand Corp. scholars determined that low-achieving pupils benefit when placed in mixed-ability classrooms, faring about five percentage points better than those placed in lower-track classes, but that high-achievers score six percentage points worse in such general classes.
In 2008, six years after No Child Left Behind became law, a survey of teachers found 60 percent saying that struggling students were a “top priority” at their schools, while just 23 percent said the same of “academically advanced” students. Eighty percent said that struggling students were most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers; only 5 percent said the same of advanced students.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association released a study in September that tracked more than 100,000 high-achieving pupils over time and found that more than one-third lost steam as they progressed through school. The Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless has reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in reading and math between 2000 and 2007, top students’ gains were “anemic.”

Good-faith efforts to help disadvantaged kids are not intended to hurt average or high-achieving students, but such leveling is an all-too common, unintended result of such good intentions. We may not be leaving as many children behind, but we’re also slowing many of them down in the Race to the Top. If it’s a tie, everybody wins….right?

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12 years ago

Why should we expect this money to be used any more effectively than the decades-old Head Start program? HS has been shown to make a very slight different at the K-1 level but those kids quickly revert to the average low level after a couple of years in elementary school. If there is no real benefit, why spend taxpayer money at all?
The answer is, “It isn’t for the children.”

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