Achievement Gap Mania Fails the “Tiffany Test”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2011

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.

Will she?

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.

Educational Reform: Slow but Sure vs. Fast and Fail

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 19th, 2011

A version of this column, “How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores,” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., appears in today’s editions of the New York Times — rp.

The latest bad news from our nation’s schools is that the verbal scores of our top students – college bound 17-year-olds who sign up to take the SAT – have once again declined. This unsurprising result is consistent with verbal scores for 17-year-olds on the more broadly based National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained essentially unchanged for 40 years.

How worried should we be? Very. And our concerns should be particularly acute because nearly nothing in our otherwise laudable and energetic education reform efforts takes direct aim at the Great Verbal Decline that took place among 17-year-olds from (roughly) 1970 to 1980.

Cognitive psychologists, who are rarely heeded in the intense rough and tumble of the education wars, agree that early childhood language learning (age two to ten) is critical to later verbal competence because of something they call the “Matthew Effect,” which determines the rate at which new word meanings are learned. The name comes from a passage in the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer.

In short, the more words you already know, the faster the rate at which you will acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried, and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired by indirect means — by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading. The Matthew Effect in language can therefore be restated this way: “To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not understand the gist there shall ensue boredom, frustration and discouragement, but not new words.” Multiply that classroom experience thousands of times over the years, and you get lower vocabularies, lower verbal scores.

But note the first half of the Matthew Effect. “Unto every one that hath shall be given.” Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on every student is brought along from the first days of preschool to understand the gist of what is heard or read. And that means children need to be offered coherent knowledge about the world around them from the first days of school. This is no mere theoretical notion: a recent article in Science by Professor David Dickenson showed that when children in preschool and kindergarten are taught substantial and coherent content concerning the human and natural worlds, the results show up five or six years later in significantly improved verbal scores. (Five years is the time span by which this kind of educational intervention needs to be judged.) By systematically staying on a subject long enough to make all pre-school children familiar with it, the gist becomes understood by all and the rate of word learning increases. This is particularly important for low-income children who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base that affluent children take for granted. Research conducted in France showed that if disadvantaged children receive coherent and cumulative content from a very early age, and if that practice is sustained through the early grades, verbal scores are higher for all by the time they reach later grades, and the demographic achievement gap is greatly reduced. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia puts it simply: Teaching content is teaching reading.

The insights of the Matthew Effect seem simply absent from the most visible current reform strategies, which focus on testing, improving teacher quality, increasing the number of charter schools and other fast-paced structural issues. Attention to these structural issues is good, but not enough–we need to pay equal attention to the substance and year-to-year coherence of what teachers teach and children learn, especially in the critical early years. Under the influence of recent reforms our best public schools – both charter and non-charter — have certainly improved the verbal scores of their students, but not as much as their math scores, and not nearly enough to overcome the huge gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Our national verbal decline transcends this “achievement gap” between demographic groups. The language competence of our high school graduates fell precipitously in the seventies, and has never recovered. What changed—and what remains largely un-discussed in education reform—is that in the decades prior to the Great Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-based approach that dominates in our schools today. On the surface, this is a paradox. De-emphasizing history, science, art and music in favor of spending time learning to read, and take reading tests should raise scores on those tests. The Matthew Effect explains why it doesn’t work.

Nonetheless verbal scores on the standardized tests taken by 17-year-olds may be the closest thing we have to a crystal ball or a canary in a coal mine. Some firm correlations of life chances with verbal skills have been established over many years of research on the large data sets of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Verbal scores of 17-year-olds predict the students’ future and our collective future. An ability to read, write, speak and listen competently correlates with a students’ capacity to learn new things readily, to communicate with others, and to work at a job effectively. It predicts their future income levels. As the verbal competency of each new generation declines or stagnates, so too will our general economic effectiveness. The single most urgent need of our schools is to raise our children’s verbal scores.

The lesson is a simple one for education reform: the administrative structure of a school, and the heroic abilities of the individual teacher, important as they are, matter less than whether a child gradually gains a critical mass of enabling knowledge over thirteen years of schooling. The key to verbal competence is a broad base of knowledge. The best-intentioned reform efforts will not succeed—cannot succeed—without a commitment to ensuring that all children receive such enabling knowledge from the first days of school.

Same SAT, Different Day

by Robert Pondiscio
September 15th, 2011

Still blaming poor SAT scores on test-takers?

SAT reading scores for 2011 high schools grads fell to their lowest point in history. The College Board attributes the decline “to the increasing diversity of the students taking the test,” notes the New York Times. But that argument was effectively dismissed by E. D. Hirsch when scores were announced last year.

“The standard explanation is that our test scores have declined chiefly because of a demographic broadening of the test-taking base. This claim ignores compelling contrary evidence. During the period of the big drop, from 1965 to 1980, verbal scores in the state of Iowa – 98 percent white and middle class – dropped with similar sharpness.

What changed, Hirsch noted, had less to do with the demographics of the test-takers “than the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools and then the teachers and administrators they trained. The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum — as researchers have shown by analyzing the severe watering down of American school books in the period 1950-to the present. The decline of the elementary curriculum coincided with our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores.”

A sloppy workman blames his tools.   Or in this case, test-takers.

Kudos to Diana Senechal!

by Robert Pondiscio
September 14th, 2011

Diana Senechal, whose frequent contributions and comments enliven this blog has been named the 2011 recipient of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities. The award from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture recognizes an “emerging leader in the humanities” and will be presented to Diana on October 26 at the Dallas Institute. The Institute’s announcement reads:

“The Hiett Prize is among the nation’s most prestigious honors in the humanities. The $50,000 annual award was created by The Dallas Institute in 2004 in collaboration with philanthropist Kim Hiett Jordan to recognize a person who has not yet reached his or her potential, but whose work in the humanities shows extraordinary promise and is already making a difference in the way we think about the world. The purpose of the Hiett Prize is to encourage future leaders in the humanities—recognizing their achievement and their promise and assisting their work through a cash award. Overall, it represents the counterpart of lifetime achievement awards by aiming at the discovery of new talent in the humanities on its way toward full maturity.

A former New York city public school teacher and a keen observer of classroom practice and academic life. Her many contributions to this blog challenge classroom orthodoxies on curriculum, assessment, and teaching practices. Her most recent post offered a critique of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare. A full collection of her blog posts is available here. Her debut book Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published in January.

“Diana Senechal is a rare find: she is not only a scholar of Slavic Languages and Literatures but also a brilliant mind in other literatures, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, science, technology, theology and music,” said J. Larry Allums Ph.D., Executive Director of The Dallas Institute, in announcing her selection for the Hiett Prize. “Her distinctive achievements and original plans for future projects in the humanities made such a resounding impact on our selection committee that they were unanimous in their final decision that she had to be the recipient of this year’s Hiett Prize.”

A singular honor for an extraordinary scholar. Take a bow, Diana!

The Quality of Homework is Not Weighed

by Robert Pondiscio
September 12th, 2011

The perennial debate over whether U.S. students get too much homework or too little misses the point. The question is not quantity, but the quality of the assignments, says science writer Annie Murphy Paul. Writing in the New York Times, Paul says what should matter is how effectively homework assignments advance learning. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists “have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns,” she writes. “They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.”

“But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.”

Paul offers several examples. As its name implies, “spaced repetition” means exposing students to the same material in shorter sessions over a longer period of time. “Instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, as many homework assignments currently do — reading about, say, the Civil War one evening and Reconstruction the next,” she writes, “students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the semester.”

Another technique, “retrieval practice,” suggests using tests “not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it.”

“We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect.”

According to Paul one experiment showed that students using retrieval practice remembered 80% of the vocabulary words they studied, compared to one-third for those using conventional methods. She also describes a technique called “interleaving” which mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practiced, instead of grouping them by type. “When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly,” observes Paul. Each of these concepts, she concludes, are untapped opportunities to improve student achievement.

Paul’s article is unlikely to be persuasive to anti-homework dead-enders. But she offers a fresh way of considering one of education’s thorniest debates. It’s a must-read for teachers and parents. Paul herself is someone to watch. She is at work on a book titled Brilliant: The New Science of Learning. More importantly she’s proving to be a savvy chronicler of cognitive science and its lessons for educators–of critical importance in a field where “brain-based” is tossed around by hucksters as casually as “new and improved.”

My District Spent $33 Million on Technology and All I Got Are These Lousy Test Scores

by Robert Pondiscio
September 7th, 2011

Maybe the medium is not the message.

Voters in the Kyrene school district, which serves students in Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, Arizona approved spending $33 million on education technology, and are being asked to fork over another $46.5 million in November. The funds have purchased a lot of laptops, interactive whiteboards and software. What it hasn’t bought is higher test scores. The New York Times reports reading and math scores have stagnated in Kyrene since 2005 while rising statewide. “To many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning,” the paper reports.

“This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.”

Anyone shocked? Regular readers of this blog will note we have regularly questioned the rush to fill classrooms with technology without asking how–how exactly–it improves outcomes or what we expect kids to learn. Breathless pronouncements about the needs and preferences of “digital natives,” and the imperative of endlessly individualized curriculum and instruction, elevate tools over their use. It’s magical thinking and overlooks that every piece of educational technology—from a piece of slate on a child’s lap and bound books in a one-room schoolhouse to Smartboards and Twitter—is a delivery mechanism, a means of displaying, transmitting, or manipulating ideas and information. The bottle is not the wine.

There is a broad tendency among edtechnophiles to conflate student engagement with achievement, and the Times is particularly strong in puncturing that myth. “The research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning,” notes the Times, citing Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo:

“For him, the best educational uses of computers are those that have no good digital equivalent. As examples, he suggests using digital sensors in a science class to help students observe chemical or physical changes, or using multimedia tools to reach disabled children.

“But he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor [Larry] Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained. ‘There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,’ he said.”

The Times is as guilty as any news organization of mooning over the need for “digital-age upgrades” and to liberate schools from their 19th century mindset. Thus it’s gratifying to see the Grey Lady take a clear-eyed look at what exactly we get when we fill our classrooms up with tech toys. The answer needn’t be “not much.” But that will always be the answer unless we make an equal effort to thoughtfully design a content-rich curriculum and stop assuming that mere “skill” with technology is a meaningful goal for schooling.

Every trade celebrates its tools, but education has made a fetish of it, too often treating technology as an end, not a means. It is hard to imagine a chef saying, “it’s not the meal that matters but the ingredients”; or an architect declaring, “Buildings aren’t important. Building materials are important.”  But when someone says what we learn doesn’t matter, but that we learn to learn–that skills and tools are what really matter, not content and products–we nod knowingly as if we have heard something profound.

Guest Post: Politics Driving Math Classes

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2011

Today’s post is by Laurie H. Rogers, a member of the executive committee for Where’s the Math? and author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do About It.”  She blogs at Betrayed ( where this post also appears.

Several days ago, someone sent me an article on “teaching math for social justice.” I actually hit my desk while reading it, narrowly missing the cat. I shouldn’t read things like that first thing in the morning. It raises my blood pressure and gets the next 12 hours off to a bad start.

In the article, teaching math for social justice isn’t about math or justice; it’s about pursuing a narrow political agenda in the classroom, through the children. Math is relegated to the wings, used as a vehicle through which the agenda is delivered.

The article was in a 2010 special edition of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics’ Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME). This issue is dedicated to “equity” in math instruction, “with a focus on power and identity.” After years of advocacy, I shouldn’t be surprised by what comes out of the NCTM, but this special edition still was a cold shock.

The NCTM, you’ll recall, is responsible for the current incarnation of “fuzzy” math, born in the depths of hell in the 1980s. Many NCTM presidents and officers have their name on, and fingers in, today’s “reform” math curricula (including the curricula still sucking the lifeblood out of children in Spokane). Unhappily for this author, some now are involved in federal initiatives related to the Common Core State Standards and assessment consortia.

After decades of abject failure of the fuzzy approach, you’d think the NCTM would reject anything that further detracts from learning math. Instead, this trend to teach math through “equity and social justice” is gathering steam, fostered by social activists, self-interested groups like the NCTM – and well-meaning people who don’t realize the intent. For social activists, the agenda isn’t about “equity of opportunity” or justice under the law. It’s political, sociological activism, designed to move students in a specific political direction based on a particular world view. This activism, masquerading as math, is inappropriate and unhelpful. Read the rest of this entry »