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.


  1. Robert, thank you for the wonderful follow up to Hess. Bringing this to life helps all better understand. This takes me back to Paul Hoss and his differentiated classroom, how we help the 5th grade teacher teaching on at least 3 levels of with a range between 2nd and 7-8th grade skills. Yes we have to find a way to challenge Tiffany and as Hess noted at least understand what our current process is doing to others.

    Comment by Brad Miller — September 27, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  2. Thanks, and I will never be able to express or repay my gratitude to the “Tiffanys” in my classes who regularly reminded me that learning is important and that they want to have as much of it as they can. Blessings on them, even as most of us systematically ignore them.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — September 27, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  3. I might mention that it was one (male) Tiffany in a class of mine, who turned in a 28-page history research paper when only asked for a 7-page paper, who had a lot to do with my realizing that there must be thousands of HS kids in the English-speaking world who not only could do much more than was being asked of them, but were actually doing it, like my student. This was an important source of the motivation to start The Concord Review in 1987 (88 issues ago).;; Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — September 27, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  4. Old news. Twenty years ago I heard a prof at Hobart & William Smith explaining that the drop in SATs was not at the bottom, but at the top. Between 1970 and 1990 by ending tracking we cut the top off US education.

    No child left behind sounds good on the surface, but in practice it means “no child challenged.” That is not new, but an excentuation of over three decades of rush to the bottom.

    On we rank 50th in the world for life expectancy at birth, right behind Portugal. Where would we fit if they listed educational achievement? What you can learn is that we are 43rd in the world in percent of GDP spend on education, right behind Ethiopia.

    Decades ago, when I entered College, the lowest math course was calculus I. Now there are six courses offered lower than calculus. One of them, “College Algebra” covers what students were expected to learn in 11th grade. There is nothing “College” about it.

    Thanks, Robert, for the article and for reminding us to look out for the Tiffanys.

    Comment by Robert Leopard — September 27, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  5. Thank you. Thank you. I feel the same about my “Tiffany” students in Compton.

    Comment by Jill — September 27, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  6. Thank you for this great piece.

    We have all had a Tiffany at some point in our careers. It perhaps is what made many of us go into teaching – the chance to come across someone like her. For me it was James Moore, a Black kid bused from Boston every day to a suburban school. He worked his behind off every day and all you could do was root for him and his future. He was simply a GREAT kid, a real person of character.

    “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?” You know we can do both, Robert. We absolutely can and we must.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 27, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  7. @Paul. I’m sure we can. I’m equally certain we don’t.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 27, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  8. I worked as a tutor for the biology core when I was in college, and had a “Tiffany” as one of my students. Natalya was an Inuit who had grown up on some remote reservation in Alaska. Her life goal was to become a pediatrician for the Indian Health Service but first she had to get through the pre-med requirements. She was extremely bright and hardworking but her K-12 education had left her woefully unprepared for the rigors of her college science courses. Especially since most of her classmates had attended top private, affluent suburban public, or magnet/exam schools.

    She did manage to scrape through with C’s, but I lost touch with her after that so I don’t know whether she was able to complete the pre-med sequence, pass the MCAT, and attend medical school. I tried looking her up in the alumni database one time, but I couldn’t recall her last name and there were too many sharing her first name with a plausible graduation year.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — September 27, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

  9. Robert,

    Even without NCLB, the ed school orthodoxy would impoverish the Tiffanys. Readers’ Workshop and Writers’ Workshop have kids reading anemic YA fiction and writing navel-gazing narratives instead of filling their minds with creativity- and wisdom-building core knowledge.
    NCLB arrived on an already intellectually-bankrupt scene.

    I’d love to see you and Hirsch start to do to the writing orthodoxy what you’d done to the reading orthodoxy. How many trillions of hours have American schools devoted to Writing Workshop-type activities –the myriad persuasive essays about the school dress code, etc.? The miserable hours of grading such essays? And for what? College teachers still deplore students’ writing, lo these twenty years into our schools’ War on Bad Writing. It’s been a failure. Writing is not a skill in the same way that reading is not a skill. And just as good reading depends on lots of knowledge, so does good writing. So the way to teach writing is through teaching content, not exercising “writing muscles” in Writing Workshop. One who knows about baseball can write about baseball; one who doesn’t, cannot.

    Comment by Ben F — September 27, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

  10. Robert, there’s an interesting parallel between your piece here and Jay Greene’s post today on “It’s Not All About Poor Kids”:

    Comment by Mark — September 27, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

  11. Wow, Robert Leopard (comment 4), as an educator in “inclusive” settings, I’ve never considered the end of tracking in this way. I’ve always been a firm believer in having a good balance of everything in life, and now I wonder if there’s a practical way to both track and mainstream in a balanced, equitable way?

    Comment by Jenn — September 27, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

  12. My Tiffany was named Sheldon. The school was a “continuous development” school — there were 14 levels in what we would think of as the first through third grades, so he was moved to the next level halfway through his first post-K year. This was great for keeping kids moving along academically, but then in grades 4-8, that system stopped and for a kid like Sheldon, who was also small and quiet, it wasn’t so great to be in 7th grade at the age of 11.

    Comment by JB — September 28, 2011 @ 8:29 am

  13. [...] stressing the achievement gap above all else, education reformers are failing the “Tiffany Test,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. As a fifth-grade teacher in the South Bronx, he met [...]

    Pingback by Reformers fail the ‘Tiffany Test’ — Joanne Jacobs — September 28, 2011 @ 9:16 am

  14. Brad Miller,

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m handicapped by being a little slow on the uptake. Sorry about that.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 28, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

  15. [...] Meet the Tiffany Lopez Test: Do reform efforts help the most motivated poor children? (Pondiscio) [...]

    Pingback by Remainders: Success, KIPP networks get federal help to expand | GothamSchools — September 28, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

  16. [...] Meet the Tiffany Lopez Test: Do reform efforts help the most motivated poor children? (Pondiscio) [...]

    Pingback by Online Education in America » Blog Archive » Remainders: Success, KIPP networks get federal help to expand — September 28, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

  17. Isn’t this the issue of differentiated learning that you saw develop in the responses in the previous post? Too often differentiated learning for the average or just plain inexperienced teacher means Tiffany is on her own with an extra worksheet.

    Comment by Charlotte Osborn — September 28, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

  18. “…writing navel-gazing narratives…”

    I still have colleagues who do not know what this means when I bring it up in academic conversation.

    I continually have to define it when I bring it up in meetings.

    Anyone older than me gets it when explained. Anyone younger needs to know why it’s such a bad thing, and why I’m such a b*tch about personal narratives.

    Comment by redkudu — September 28, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

  19. This is an excellent piece. You are right. The Tiffanys of the schools get screwed when we focus primarily on getting kids up to the passing point on low-level tests.

    Another kind of student gets screwed as well: the student who is interested in the subject for its own sake. (I realize that “for its own sake” is a problematic notion–let’s say “for its own sake and surrounding sakes.”) This kid might be a little messier, a little less compliant, but will want to know different proofs of the Pythagorean theorem just because they’re interesting, will want to discuss Moby-Dick (and not just read it independently for “enrichment”), will want to know the origins of words, will want to visit an observatory. These kids have the curiosity but nothing in school to feed it–the school day goes to waste for them, and they must learn the “real stuff” in their own time.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 29, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  20. This article just reinforces what I have believed for years. I think the way our school system operates is archaic. It still functions (for the most part) the way it did when the public school system was started. We have a summer break of appx. 12 weeks. WHY? Most children even in the rural areas aren’t needed on the farm anymore. That was the main reason the school was set up for 9 months on, 3 months off. Classes are inclusive, every ability level together for each age level. WHY? Because of “equality” and “political correctness.” Schools are suppose to HELP children. By not separating the more advanced students (outside of the gifted classes, which is a joke!) most students are getting mediocre teaching.

    Enough of my ranting. I love homeschooling precisely for this reason. Kids are usually taught at their level (it doesn’t matter their age or what grade they “should be in”), and parents can teach to the child’s interest!

    The Department of Education is SOOO big, I doubt if we are going to see any meaningful changes. Charter schools like the ones Dr. Hirsch has been involved with gives me hope! I hope with this new Standard Core Curriculum, we will see changes. One can only hope!!

    READING: The Cornerstone to Success

    Comment by Rene — September 29, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

  21. This phenomenon also exists, at a higher level, in “highly-performing” schools in affluent suburbs, which use the same awful curricula, weak instructional methods and heterogeneous grouping. Particularly at the ES level, and likely at the MS level, perhaps at the HS level, the most able kids (which may be half the class) are not challenged. If there is a “gifted” component, it’s likely to be “enrichment” in the form of artsy projects instead of more and deeper content. I’d love to see what my kids’ old ES and MS would look like with Core Knowledge or Classical curriculum, Singapore Math, homogeneous grouping, teacher-centered instruction and acceleration. The kids would really fly! I’m grateful that the kids’ old HS has held the line on APs; with honors prerequisites, the classes are really college-level. However, many more kids (from that population,most kids) should be at that level.

    Comment by momof4 — September 30, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  22. [...] is hurting the more gifted students.  (Here is the initial post from Mr. Hess on Flypaper, and from Mr. Pondiscio on the Core Knowledge Blog.)  That in turn has led to a furious response from Dropout [...]

    Pingback by What to do About Achievement Gaps | A Christian in the Classroom — October 1, 2011 @ 11:37 pm

  23. In “Someone Has To Fail,” David Labaree hits on the challenge with closing the achievement gap (Pp. 167 to 172).

    Labaree’s point is that history shows us it cannot be done, because as upper SES families see a threat to schooling as their ticket to social mobility, they develop a response to the reform that allows their children to maintain their advantage over the lower SES kids.

    One example he cites is the creation of comprehensive high schools as a way to attract working class families, which led almost simultaneously to tracking, to allow higher SES children to obtain a distinctive “college prep” diploma.

    Unlike Hess Labaree doesn’t seem to comment on whether the gap ought to be closed, or whether the focus ought to be on another group of kids. But like most good historians, he helps point out where the idea has been tried before and why is did or did not work.

    Of course he also points out that reformers “tend to have more than a touch of the doctrinaire in them,” and thus don’t particularly like to be bothered by history.

    Comment by matthew — October 3, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  24. [...] Pondiscio summarizes the National Affairs article in Achievement Gap Mania Fails the “Tiffany Test”: The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, [...]

    Pingback by Achievement Gap Mania | Psssst! Over Here! — November 1, 2011 @ 9:55 am

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