Berkeley Proves Jay Mathews’ Case

by Robert Pondiscio
December 28th, 2009

A few weeks ago the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews complained that focusing on eliminating the goal of achievement gap is ”useless” as a measure of school improvement.   “Our gap fixation puts us in a very awkward position,” he wrote, since “it forces us to hope that white kids, or middle class kids, or high achieving kids, don’t improve.”   As if to demonstrate Mathews’ case, California’s Berkeley High School is considering a plan to eliminate science labs and five science teachers to free up more resources to help struggling students.  Information presented at the school’s governance council meetings reportedly suggested that the science labs were “largely classes for white students.”

(H/T: Joanne Jacobs)


  1. The Achievement Gap should be the essential focus of federal policy, but this is as absurd as it is insulting. Ironically, this type of mushy liberal political correctness is the type of thing that gave birth to the Accountability movement, and yet the data-driven “reforms” have bred a whole new series of mindlessness.

    This may sound too conservative, but what about educational values? Don’t we have timeless principles of schooling and learning to be upheld? Isn’t part of our job to create a sanctuary where we don’t give into immediate pressures?

    And that brings me to your previous post. I was appalled the first time I saw teens text messaging and flirting in a sanctuary – during the funeral of a classmate no less. But our school just had its first play in four years and I saw worse. The kids appreciated the parents who turned out. But didn’t the adult think their kids could see the blue glow on their faces as they text messaged through the performance?

    We adults have to stand for some things. Its bad enough we allowed PE and field trips to be driven from too many schools. Its bad enough that we’ve sacrificed History for tested subjects. Its bad enough that we’ve let other adults in central offices and in government impose destructive policies on schools.

    But can’t we stand together and protect childhood?

    Comment by john thompson — December 28, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  2. Your remark about parental behavior during plays strikes a chord with me, John. At my school the parents were always appallingly behaved during assemblies — far worse than the kids. Shouting at each other across the aisles, talking on cellphones, barely paying attention when their kids were part of the action and not at all when they weren’t. And this is not a phenomenon of the neighborhood in which I taught. At a family fun night at my daughter’s school, a private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, during one “family fun” night, the parents didn’t even go through the motions of pretending to pay attention to the performers–an amplified band that struggled to be heard over the din of the parents’ loud conversations in the back of the hall while the kids ran riot in the front. I feel impossibly old-fashioned, but I believe that adults — parents, teachers and ALL adults — have an obligation to set an example for children.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 28, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  3. Robert — the behavior of parents is even worse at athletic events…the yelling at the refs is unbelievable…

    The society, thanks in large part to medicare/welfare, the breakup of the family, the incredible loss of value in the dollar, the requirement that both parents work, etc…has completely destroyed a good thing…government schools have done their part to make matters even worse as they became baby sitters and lost the desire to discipline…

    Ugh…i fear for my kids and their kids…

    Comment by tim-10-ber — December 28, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  4. I disagree that the achievement gap should be the essential focus of federal policy. The only way that it can be closed is by defining proficiency down to well below room temperature. There is a whole cohort of kids at the bottom of the distribution that would not have been in regular schools prior to the 70s or thereabouts; kids with severe cognitive, behavioral, psychiatric or criminal problems. Even with their (politically impossible) removal, the remaining kids encompass a wide spectrum of ability, motivation and diligence. I agree with the above post which suggested that improvement of all subgroups would be a better solution. We can try to move the whole curve to the right, but ignoring or constraining the top in a futile attempt to create equal outcomes across unequal groups is just plain wrong.

    Comment by momof4 — December 28, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  5. I think my college classmate Leonard, an African-American who went on to become a successful surgeon, would have a few choice words to say about the assertion that science classes are for white kids. Talk about “the soft bigotry of low expectations”…

    Comment by Crimson Wife — December 28, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  6. Momof4,
    The US has a very broad achievement distribution with a long tail at the low end. But this distribution doesn’t have to be a fixed entity.

    Internationally, the high performing school systems have been able to both 1)narrow the achievement gap and 2)increase the performance of their top students.

    Improving schooling doesn’t have to be an either-or. If the international data means anything, it would suggest that both elements are necessary.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 29, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  7. This issue is an on going struggle in our district, and there has been considerable sniping at board members who focused too much on “excellence” and not enough on “equity.”

    One of the hazards of NCLB is that “proficiency” appears to be its only goal, and a school that takes it too seriously can easily come to believe that it is *mandated* to pull resources away from already proficient students and direct them towards struggling students. My daughter’s middle school is in “program improvement” and if its only goal were to make AYP it really makes no sense to waste resources on her education.

    My view is that in the big picture you don’t do a lot to promote equity if you end up with a public school systems focused on “proficiency” for poor kids and an private schools offering “excellence” to parents who can afford to pay for it.

    But when you leave the big picture, and have to make budget decisions there is going to be some point where you have a concrete choice to make between offering an additional AP class or offering math support to help students pass Algebra I and get a diploma.

    In many ways I believe that ensuring that public schools support academic excellence is a key equity issue — but I think it takes a commitment to public education that many NCLB proponents don’t really have.

    Comment by Rachel — December 29, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

  8. Hear, hear Rachel!

    Personally, I believe the equity vs. excellence logjam will only be broken — CAN only be broken — when the parents of high-performing children in low-performing schools begin to behave more like affluent parents do traditionally. Education policy is a blunt instrument. When the impulse is toward equity (NCLB), children who are at proficiency in low-performing schools tend to be regarded as finished goods, and their parents tend to be told they’re where they need to be. If or when those parents are made aware that their children are not being offered the same range of opportunities as successful kids in more affluent schools nearby things will change. In short, excellence begets equity, and not the other way around.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 29, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  9. Robert,

    Agreed, excellence begets equity. But do you really think that parents can drive the school improvement process? If you have the full weight of NCLB type reforms driving schools into a false “equity” improvement mode, why would school officials ever listen/respond to parental concerns?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 29, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  10. I’d like to return to John Thompson’s question: “What about educational values? Don’t we have timeless principles of schooling and learning to be upheld? Isn’t part of our job to create a sanctuary where we don’t give into immediate pressures?”

    Yes! If schools want to encourage integrity and thoughtfulness in students, they should set an example of the same. Schools should know what to keep and what to change. They should beware of proposals that would compromise the best of what they have. Immediate considerations and pressures will always play a part, but they should not rule a school.

    This particular high school appears to be embarking on a “redesign”; it will be divided up into “small learning communities.” It is not clear what is actually happening with these science labs–whether they are being cut or moved from their after-school slots to a time during the school day (which apparently would mean a significant reduction in lab time). In any case, I hope that the school preserves its best courses and programs, redesign or no redesign.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 29, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  11. I’m willfully naive, professionally and congenitally optimistic and sanguine about democracy (or at least the legal system). So yes, I believe parents can drive school improvement. In fact, I think it’s the only thing that really does. Show me a great school and I’ll show you aggressive, activist parents. And their lawyers.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 29, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  12. The implementation of Core Knowledge into schools was not driven by parents but teachers and educators that believed that a quality education included content.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 29, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

  13. You might be right, Erin, but I would wager that the idea of a solid, content-based curriculum is more popular with parents than professional educators. At the very least it would be an interesting hypothesis to test.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 29, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  14. Show me a great school and I’ll show you aggressive, activist parents. And their lawyers.

    I’d have to agree with this — though I think you can do a lot without lawyers.

    The reason we have school board members focusing on excellence, and questioning the NCLB mindset, is that parents pay attention to school board elections.

    There are certainly teachers and administrators who are equally questioning, but at least in the early days of NCLB, our district seemed to slide very easily into a focus on proficiency, with “goals” of school plans mirroring exactly the mandated AYP goals.
    One school where 70% or more of students routinely scored “proficient and above” on state tests wrote a school plan with a goal of have 39% of 3rd graders score proficient or above in reading and math.

    Comment by Rachel — December 29, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  15. I would agree that parents are more likely to support content-rich curricula.

    But if schools are caught between governmental mandates (e.g. NCLB) that restrict (or increase) the flow of their operating budgets vs. listening to parents concerns, I would suspect that school administrators will side with the governmental mandates. Budgets are something that every school administrator does understand.

    I suspect that if the government mandated content-rich curricula then schools would respond more quickly/robustly than if parents requested it. Government requirements are often tied to school budgets and so school officials have a vested interest in listening to those mandates. This is not so for parental requests.

    The few motivated parents that are interested in improving schools will never have the resources and effects that governmental policies have. If those governmental policies are foolish (as they seem to be), schools will respond accordingly.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 29, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

  16. I’ve long harbored a fantasy that would split the difference between parental pressure and government mandates. It would look like this: at the beginning of the year, the parents association comes to the principal with a petition that says something along the lines of “We the undersigned believe the best education for our children consists of a rich, full curriculum in all subject areas, and regular exposure to art, music, and p.e. with ample access to extracurricular enrichment. Any attempt to narrow our children’s education to just reading and math, or use class time for test prep will be futile since it will immediately result in all of the undersigned refusing to allow our children to sit for state tests.”

    Think it would work?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 29, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  17. I am with you in that fantasy. How about also asking the states and feds to side with those parents?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 29, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  18. It would be helpful for Erin to translate for us how the successful international model(s) could be realized in our schools. Will the extreme heterogeneity of our country versus the relative homogeneity of the most successful international systems be a stumbling block?

    If someone out there has a better mousetrap shouldn’t we be studying it and/or attempting to emulate it? Are states or the feds aware of any of these global successes and if so, why hasn’t anyone brought them to our attention? Just wondering.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 29, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

  19. Paul,
    Singapore is hardly considered homogeneous (3 different major ethnic groups; 80% students learning English as a 2nd language) and neither is the Netherlands (huge immigrant population mostly from North Africa that in percentages is comparable to the US).

    There are significant school organizational differences between the top performing school systems. The few consistent characteristics between them are: 1)high expectations for all students with tracking only in the upper grades, 2) articulated, detailed, content-rich curricula (not vague standards), and 3) testing that is directly linked to the content (not the “general skills” type of testing that we use in our country).

    While it is difficult to say which elements of these other school systems would work here, what we can learn from them is that it is possible to have both: high achievement for our top students as well as a narrow achievement gap.

    What we also know is that all the current US ideas about how to improve schools (standards, accountability, charter schools, more money, lower class sizes, smaller schools, etc…) are not being used in the top-performing school systems; which would suggest that those ideas may not work here to improve student learning.

    As for why anyone would bring the international information to light? Speculation: if the global successes supported the current crop of ed reform ideas (charter schools, accountability, increased funding, etc…) I would suspect that the international data would be highly touted. But the initiatives used to improve student learning in these other school systems (content-rich curricula, testing linked to curricula, centralized educational planning, etc…) are not very popular in the US ed reform community, so why would anyone in our country bring them up? It wouldn’t support their ideas.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 30, 2009 @ 12:03 am

  20. I would add to Robert’s fantasy. Kids who demonstrate regular participation in art, music or PE either as a school extracurricular activity or through any community/club source may use that to meet art/music/PE requirements. As a parent of a swimmer who trained 5 hours a day and a soccer player who was playing 5 teams (4 simultaneously), I am very aware that some kids need time for another academic class or a study hall more than PE. I’m fine with requiring first aid/CPR in middle school, but serious athletes get plenty of nutrition etc. in their sport.

    Comment by momof4 — December 30, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  21. So what can we, as informed education reformers, do to get the message out about: content-rich curricula, testing linked to curricula, centralized educational planning, etc…? This stuff isn’t exactly classified information.

    One more CRITICAL question: What do these academic international powerhouses do to combat the MTV culture of their youth? Additionally, what can we do to remove this pox from our shores? Robert Johnson, et all, cannot be dissuaded from making a living, even if it’s at the expense of generations of our young people, or can he?

    I’ve essentially concluded that reforms such as charter schools, merit pay, smaller class sizes, shutting down failing schools, etc. are all a waste. We appear to be missing the problem/solution at an unprecedented level. Or perhaps, this issue is politically incorrect to even discuss. NONSENSE! It’s my belief that education reform no longer has cache. It’s cultural reform that we need to address.

    If the majority of our targeted (NCLB) students come to school anxious not to appear educated, cultured, intelligent, as if these traits could somehow appear undesirable or even shameful, how are we to combat this mindset? Worse, to exacerbate this Bizarro-culture our middle and upper class youth are attempting to aspire to their social inferiors through such mindless acts as; baseball caps worn sideways, pants worn below the level of their unders, tattoos, body piercings, now all considered as some kind of “uncouth chic” by a growing number of our lower middle class, middle class, and upper class youth.

    What are the Singapores and Finlands of the world doing to combat this insanity? This is not just for Erin to address. This one is for everyone, especially our urban pedagogical brethren.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 30, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  22. I wonder if the MTV culture has less of a hold in other countries in part because it is foreign (American) — there’s not so much of a fantasy that they can grow up to be the next big hip-hop artist.

    But part of the challenge in the U.S. is that entertainment and sports have been the most visible paths to success for poor and minority kids.

    Comment by Rachel — December 30, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

  23. The current issue of “National Geographic” has a very interesting article on Singapore and from my reading of it, Singapore works because it’s the ultimate “nanny state”. Their problem is how to encourage creative thinking in such an ultra-controlled environment.

    South Korea is freer but you still have got a culture of intact families who value education highly.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — December 30, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  24. Paul, We have a cultural idea that curricula and instruction are synonomous with the teacher. We would probably both agree that teaching matters greatly. But what data/information/materials is a classroom teacher going to use to improve his/her practice? Should we expect every teacher to spontaneously invent and implement the best curricula and instructional techniques? And do this while trying to manage and teach a full classroom of active kids? It seems a bit unreasonable for us to expect that out of our teachers. So our teachers continue to do their best and teach what they know.

    Because we rely on the institutional memory of teachers, we get teaching that is fairly consistent. Student learning (Reading, math on NAEP) has not changed much in the last 30+ years.

    What has changed is that other school systems have gotten better. And these other school systems that have improved have all done so by changing what happens at the classroom level. Is that classroom invasiveness something that you think that Americans are willing to do?

    There are several major curricular innovations used in these other countries that our students would greatly benefit from (content knowledge being one). But in an era of “testing and accountability” why would anyone want to try a new approach to student learning that is outside the scope of our current tests?

    One quick example: Singapore math is outstanding. It uses a different approach to teaching arithmetic and problem solving that greatly facilitates algebraic thinking so that students are able to begin real algebra instruction in 6th grade. When Washington state revamped their math standards, they did so using the standard American math paradigm. The curricula review committee concluded that Singapore math did not align to the new standards and thus should not be used in WA schools. So why would any teacher go out of his/her way to use these fabulous materials/techniques for teaching math?

    Governmental policy on ed reform matters. Where is the focus of the feds or the states (outside of MA) on curricular improvements?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 30, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  25. Berkeley’s massive achievement gap between low-income, mostly black students (who live in the city’s “flatlands”) and the affluent whites and Asians (who live in the hills) will not be eliminated by killing AP Physics. Berkeley school board members need to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit which shows how France narrows the achievement gap between whites and minorities with its content-rich national curriculum. Most white and Asian kids in Berkeley imbibe massive amounts of intellectual nutrients from conversations with their intellectual parents and end up excelling academically despite their schools’ anaemic curricula. Low-income kids rely much more heavily on the schools for their mental nutrition and unless this is beefed up, the achievement gap will only grow as they advance in years.

    Comment by Ben F — January 1, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

  26. Ben, I agree with your point about intellectual nutrients (great phrase), but am a bit curious about the French example. It is my understanding that many of their large Muslim minority tend to self-segregate into communities so unfriendly to others that even police and fire/rescue personnel can hesitate to enter. Do all of the children, especially girls, attend school regularly in those areas? Do the local governments have good statistics on attendance, test scores etc.? I have not read anything on the topic. I’ve read a lot of Hirsch’s stuff, but not The Knowledge Deficit; it looks as if I should.

    Comment by momof4 — January 2, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  27. I don’t remember the details of Hirsch’s account. I know that many immigrant neighborhoods in France are bleak, but the statistics seemed to show that overall the education system is doing its part to ameliorate the inequalities.

    Comment by Ben F — January 2, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

  28. “When Washington state revamped their math standards, they did so using the standard American math paradigm. The curricula review committee concluded that Singapore math did not align to the new standards and thus should not be used in WA schools.”

    To add to Erin’s remark – more info on the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) review of math curricula commercially available in the US is available on their web site

    The other 49 state Education Boards would better take as example Washington State’s initiative to review and recommend curricula – for math as well as other disciplines. These reviews and recommendations are time and resource consuming. The over 10,000 US School Districts do not have the qualification or the funds to conduct such reviews on their own.

    At this point, curriculum reviews at State Education Board level may be the only place where academic specialists in math and sciences can insert themselves in the school curricular debates.

    In particular, Prof. Stephen Wilson of the Johns Hopkins Math Dept. was part of the WA curriculum review. Here is his independent take on K-5 and 6-8 math curricula endorsed by the WA state:

    And for high school:

    To save you the trouble, among the WA suggested math curricula, Wilson finds no curricula for grades 6-8 or 9-12 that he can enthusiastically endorse.

    Here is a similar review of WA endorsed high school math curricula done by Guershon Harel, of the UC San Diego Math Dept:

    The Washington State OSPI review of math curricula was a good thing to have, but in retrospect it did not proceed without faults. I can think of 2 problems with the WA OSPI review:

    1. There did not seem to be a concern about aligning the math curriculum with middle and high school physics and chemistry.

    2. The review did not include holistic, connoisseur judgments – and instead was done ascribing points to each curricula according to the various strands of the WA state math standards. As a result, a well conceived and coherent curriculum like Singapore Math was nickle and dimed and scored out of the competition.

    The quality of the Singapore Math curriculum stems from honing the sequence of topics in a certain way that has historically proved to be the most effective way to present elementary math material. There were no ‘points’ in the WA OSPI review for that. There were also no points for the fact that Singapore Math emphasizes logic-style problems early on, that abstraction is slowly introduced from simple to more complex examples, and that American customary measure units and the metric system are thoroughly reviewed in 3rd and 4th grade.

    Loyce M. Adams et. al. have ran into the same problem when they reported on older Singapore Math Middle School curricula, as they compared to Connected Mathematics and Mathematics in Context.

    Adams et. al. did not use the Singapore Math curriculum now commercially available in the US, but older texts actually used in Singapore. They had found that, when judged on their own merits, Singapore Math curricula is mathematically far more advanced than the two others, while the other two receive a better strand-by-strand score when going by the NCTM Principles and Standards 2000 as a basis of comparison.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — January 5, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

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