The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, policymaker or a fellow educator. It was an eleven-year-old girl named Tiffany Lopez, a fifth grader in my class during my second year of teaching in the South Bronx.
Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school and you will spot someone like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; homework always complete. She grew up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.
She also gets screwed.
Since she goes to a school where the majority of her classmates read and do math well below grade level, Tiffany is “not your problem,” as one of my administrators pointedly told me early in my teaching career. The message to a new teacher could not have been clearer: focus your efforts on the low achievers. Get them in the game. Tiffany will be fine.
I thought of Tiffany Lopez, as I often do, while reading Rick Hess’s essay last week in National Affairs on “Achievement Gap Mania.” Nearly alone among edupundits, Hess has the standing—and frankly, the balls—to call into question the gap-closing orthodoxy, the de facto policy engine driving American education in the era of No Child Left Behind. Our focus on gap closing, Hess writes, “has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.”
“The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.”
Hess couldn’t be more correct or on target. To this day, I worry about whether I was the teacher Tiffany Lopez needed me to be. In my post-classroom work I apply the “Tiffany Test” to any new reform, policy initiative or teaching idea that comes down the pike: will this make it more likely or less likely that kids like Tiffany will get what they need to reach their full academic and life potential? The answer rarely comes back in the affirmative. Indeed, the primary casualty of our achievement gap mania is what Hess describes as “the credo that every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his potential.”
Blame the teachers? Not this time. Hess cites a 2008 poll, which asked if it’s more important to focus equally on all students or disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. Eighty-six percent of teachers said all students and just 11% said disadvantaged students. “Yet education reformers are doing their very best to counter this healthy democratic impulse — and they have largely succeeded,” Hess observes.
“All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education. Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction.”
Frank C. Worrell of the University of California, Berkeley points out that the focus on bringing up the bottom means “we are not sparking the creativity of those who have the most potential to make outstanding contributions.” Hess is particularly strong on how a gap closing focus coupled with the orthodoxy of differentiated instruction is a double whammy for high-achieving (or potentially high achieving) students. Students like Tiffany Lopez.
“Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, “It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students . . . .Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one.”
Tiffany Lopez had more “grit” at age 11 than the entire graduating class of any KIPP school. There was never a doubt in my mind that she would stay in school and go to college. This month, she began her freshman year at a four-year, in-state, public university in Pennsylvania, where she moved a few years after leaving my classroom. I’ve been waiting for this moment for seven years. I have long feared that at college she will find herself surrounded by students of lesser gifts who, though they lack her aptitude and character, will be better academically prepared. I hope I’m wrong. But if she succeeds, it will not be because of what I and other teachers did for her over the course of her public school education.
It will be in spite of it.
When you have a Tiffany in your class in the age of gap-closing you understand that despite her good grades and rock steady performance on state tests, she is subsisting on starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music. You understand that her finish line—read on grade level; graduate on time—is the starting line for more fortunate children. Tiffany and the numberless, faceless multitude of children like her, represents the low-hanging fruit the typical inner city school leaves drying on the vine. She is–maddeningly, damnably, undemocratically–”not your problem.”
There is a question that has gnawed at me ever since I was Tiffany Lopez’s 5th grade teacher in the South Bronx. If you are committed to equity and social justice, which is the more effective engine of change: giving every child a mediocre, minimum-competency education? Or giving the richest, most robust possible education to the most receptive and motivated? A focused, low-income kid with a superior education is on the time-honored path to upward mobility, virtually guaranteeing her children will not grow up in poverty. The same kid with a bland, good-enough education is prepared merely to march in place.
A false dichotomy. We should do both, of course. But as Hess has amply demonstrated, it’s not working out that way.