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.

Road Trip With Alfie Kohn

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2011

OK, teachers.  Raise your hand if Alfie Kohn has ever set foot in your classroom and witnessed you drilling your students with rote memorization or handing out worksheets all day. 


One of the very first pieces I wrote for this blog concerned Alfie Kohn and his insistence that Core Knowledge is rote memorization and a “bunch o’ facts” while never to my knowledge having actually darkened the doorway of a single Core Knowledge school.  He’s at it again in Education Week, wringing his hands over the “pedagogy of poverty” and how urban children endure a curriculum that “consists of a series of separate skills, with more worksheets than real books, more rote practice than exploration of ideas, more memorization (sometimes assisted with chanting and clapping) than thinking.”

Where is this happening?  Where exactly?

To be sure, I agree with much of Kohn’s diagnosis.  The curriculum served to inner city kids tends to be a thin gruel.  There is entirely too much focus on test prep; reading tends to be reduced to ineffective and content-free reading strategies instruction.  Frankly, I see a lot more damage being done to low-income urban kids in the name of “authentic learning” and a refusal to acknowledge the cognitive benefits of a knowledge-rich core curriculum.  Kohn’s diagnosis makes me wonder what schools he’s been visiting:

In books like The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol, another frequent visitor to urban schools, describes a mechanical, precisely paced process for drilling black and Latino children in “obsessively enumerated particles of amputated skill associated with upcoming state exams.”  Not only is the teaching scripted, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token-economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

That sounds truly horrible.  Where is this happening?  Perhaps I don’t visit as many schools as Kohn, but I haven’t witnessed a whole lot of rote memorization and militaristic behavior control.  Worksheets?  Frankly, I’ve seen more of them in classrooms where struggling teachers with poor classroom management skills are required to do small group work, ready or not, so they assign busywork while they try to steal a few moments with their mandated ”book clubs” and “literature circles.”

But I don’t want to question my betters, so here’s my earnest challenge to the estimable Mr. Kohn.  Show me.  Take me to these schools you decry so that I may see what you see.   I want to visit the schools that you have visited where all the children sit in rows, memorize by rote, and spend their days filling out worksheets.  I promise I will share your outrage.  Bottom line:  I completely agree that there a many, many lousy urban schools.  I’m just not convinced they’re lousy for the reasons Kohn describes.   But I’m willing to be convinced.

I’m ready.  My bags are packed, Alfie.  When can we go? 

Yes, I’m serious.

Stuart Buck on “Acting White”

by Robert Pondiscio
June 1st, 2010

With his frequent insightful comments, Stuart Buck of the University of Arkansas has become a familiar name to regular readers of this and other prominent education blogs. His first book, just published by Yale University Press, has been discussed at Joanne Jacobs and on Rod Dreher’s blog at Beliefnet. I’m pleased Stuart has agreed to blog about it this week on the Core Knowledge Blog — rp.

In this post and the one following, I will describe the thesis of my book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, published by Yale University Press on May 25, 2010. Much thanks to Robert Pondiscio for allowing me to blog about it here.

“Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” Barack Obama said in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, “and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” A May 2009 report from Newsweek noted that Michelle Obama “described the ridicule she faced from neighborhood kids for ‘acting white’ when she got good grades” as a child.

The Obamas are far from alone in their observations. Many people in recent years–most famously, Bill Cosby–have pointed out that black children often seem to think of schoolwork as a “white” activity. Anecdotal evidence abounds in newspaper articles and on the Internet. One black valedictorian in Virginia, for example, told a newspaper that “as I’ve gone through my whole school career, people have called me white because I’ve made good grades and didn’t conform to the stereotype.”

As well, many academic studies have shown that some black children think of doing schoolwork as “acting white,” and a study by Roland Fryer–a black Harvard economist–shows that black children nationwide become less popular if their grade-point average rises above 3.5.

“Acting white” has been discussed so often in the popular press that it no longer comes as a surprise. But it should. If we look at the historical record, there is no evidence that black schoolchildren back in the days of slavery or Jim Crow accused a studious schoolmate of “acting white.” To the contrary, white people occasionally accused educated blacks of trying to be white. A Northerner who had moved to Georgia after the Civil War noted that “in the days of Slavery, the masters ridiculed the negroes’ efforts to use good language, and become like the whites.”

Yet today, the “acting white” criticism that was once occasionally used by racist whites has been adopted by some black schoolchildren. This is a mystery, is it not? What happened between the nineteenth century and today?

The answer, I believe, springs from the complex history of desegregation. Although desegregation arose from noble and necessary impulses, and although desegregation was to the overall benefit of the nation, it was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals and teachers who could serve as role models, and brought many black schoolchildren into daily contact with whites who made school a strange and uncomfortable environment that was viewed as quintessentially “white.”

Numerous scholars and commentators have observed that the “acting white” criticism arose during the 1960s–precisely the time when desegregation actually happened. Indeed, many black people recall that they were first accused of “acting white” or “trying to be white” during the desegregation experience.

Among many examples in the book, author Kitty Oliver notes that “there was a time when black students wouldn’t dare tease a student, but rather would applaud them for their achievements.” But then, “desegregation created a clearer division of white and black. Once black and white students started attending school together, the association shifted and black students began to tease one another by pushing their smart peers into the ‘white’ category.” Bernice McNair Barnett, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recalls that she was “isolated and cut off from the world of my former Black peers (who saw my school desegregation choice as ‘trying to be White’) as well as my new White peers (who were both hate filled bullies and otherwise good hearted but silent bystanders).”

The stage was set for this attitudinal shift once desegregation undermined one of the traditional centers of the black community: the school. In the segregated schools, black children had consistently seen other blacks succeeding in the academic world. The authority figures and role models–that is, the teachers and principals–were virtually always black. A typical description of those days: “It was like a family. You knew all the children. You knew their parents, and they all had gone to the same school. We didn’t have the same resources that the white students had, but we had teachers who made sure you did the very best you could with what you had.” Another former student in a black school recalled, “They encouraged the fainthearted, and boosted the ego of the underachiever.” And the best students in black schools were black as well.

All of this ended with desegregation. Many black schools disappeared altogether: school boards all across the South closed or demolished black schools in pursuit of desegregation (or occasionally kept the school open while changing its name and status, so as to erase its historical connection to the black community). In North Carolina, for example, out of 226 all-black high schools in 1964, only 13 survived a mere 8 years later. Unsurprisingly, the number of black principals also dropped from 226 to 15.

Take Second Ward High School in Charlotte, NC. One resident told author David Shipler, “The principal was like our grandfather, an authoritative figure. . . . We didn’t have the best materials, but we had the best nurturing.” Says another graduate: “I don’t advocate segregated schools today. But there are attributes of that time that need to be in place today. Our teachers, they’d look at you, almost as if they were wanting to will a good education into your head.”

But Second Ward was demolished under a desegregation plan in Charlotte, and the black students were dispersed to white schools. Students were devastated. Said one person: “An institution was being closed. And not necessarily for progress, but because of integration. . . . Well, it was heartbreaking. It really was. It really was.” Another person said, “We thought that it was the utmost in betrayal.” A former teacher from Second Ward later said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”

After desegregation, many black children were taught by white teachers who disliked them, did not care about their success, underestimated their capabilities, or–at the opposite extreme–coddled them out of guilt. Even when the white teachers did everything right, the black schoolchildren still, for the first time, faced the possibility of seeing “school” as a place where success equaled seeking the approval of whites.

Black schoolchildren, now dispersed into formerly all-white schools, suddenly had to deal with unfriendly classmates on a day-to-day basis. School was no longer a place where black children could avoid interacting with racist people. As John McWhorter points out, the “demise of segregation” helped “pave the way for the ‘acting white’ charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white ones in larger numbers than ever before, which meant that whites were available for black students to model themselves against.”

Many desegregated schools also made greater use of academic “tracking,” which kept most of the better-prepared white students in a separate class from the black students. This too reinforced the message that academic achievement was reserved for whites. By contrast, as Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, “in the context of a segregated school, it was a given that the high achieving students would all be Black. Academic achievement did not have to mean separation from one’s Black peers.”

Thus, as Harvard economist Roland Fryer points out, one’s attitude toward education can now function as a racial signal. A black student who is too eager in class may be seen as trying to curry favor with the mostly white teachers. And where the advanced classes or academic clubs are predominantly white, the black student who takes advanced classes or joins an academic club is seen as having preferred the company of whites over blacks. In other words, just by the fact that desegregation brought black and white students into contact with one another, it became possible for either blacks or whites to view the other race as outsiders in the school environment, and to start punishing children who spent too much time crossing the boundary lines between races.

There is nothing unusual in this: Humans are tribal creatures. It is a universal human trait for group members to expect loyalty to the group, whether the “group” involves employees of a particular corporation; Democrats or Republicans; literally thousands of religious sects and denominations; citizens of a particular country, state, or town; fans of the Yankees or any other sports team; or a nearly infinite range of groups based on all sorts of characteristics. It was an ironic byproduct of desegregation that this universal human expectation–“be loyal to our group, or else”–showed up in schools.

Stuart Buck is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, he has published scholarly articles in Phi Delta Kappan, Harvard Law Review, and elsewhere.

Great Moments in Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
April 1st, 2010

Finalists for the 2010 Broad Prize have been announced.  It’s worth $2 million to the urban school district that shows the ”greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement” while reducing achievement gaps.  This year’s finalists are:

  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, N.C.
  • Gwinnett County Public Schools outside Atlanta
  • Montgomery County Public Schools, Md.
  • Socorro Independent School District, El Paso, Texas
  • Ysleta Independent School District, El Paso, Texas

But the real Broad Prize excitement today is in Dallas, where Superintendent Michael Hinojosa publicly made winning the Broad Prize by 2010 a goal as far back as 2005.  Just yesterday, the Dallas Morning News editorial board was debating what should happen if Dallas missed the cut, since the superintendent has insisted he should be held accountable for the goal. 

So what do you do now?  Resign?  Issue a public mea culpa and a plan to improve?  Tell your staff you’re going hiking on the Appalachian Trail and catch a flight to Brazil?  Not hardly.  Reporter Tawnell Hobbs writes on the paper’s blog:

I talked to Hinojosa a little while ago about DISD not making the finalist list this year, a known DISD goal since 2005, and I have to say I’m blown away by what he just told me. Apparently, contrary to all the literature, speeches, 2010 gadgets, DISD website, etc., Hinojosa says that he actually meant that DISD would win the Broad Prize in 2011, not 2010.

The paper is having none of it and is plastering its website with presentations, timelines, a 2007 op-ed by Hinojosa promising Dallas would be a finalist by 2010 – even a picture of a DISD luggage tag that says “Dallas ISD: Road to Broad 2010″ — to show that supe is trying to get away with revisionist history.  “Oh, I see now. Everyone — and I mean “everyone” — was working with incorrect information,” writes editorial page editor Mike Hashimoto.  He suggests some new benchmarks for the Superintendent.

1. Buy a calendar
2. If everything published about one of your goals is off by, oh, a calendar year, tell someone.
3. Re-read your own work

One gets the sense that the Dallas Morning News is going to make things a wee bit uncomfortable for DISD going forward.  And perhaps the paper should clarify now that Hinojosa means 2011 A.D., 365 days from today.   If I were Hinojosa, I might indeed buy that calendar.  A Mayan one.  And change the goal to 2012.

“Stop Demoralizing Teachers”

by Robert Pondiscio
October 28th, 2008

Why does the answer to improving student achievement always seem to come down to lengthening the school day and adding more professional development, asks Philadelphia schoolteacher Christopher Paslay.  “I’ve been teaching in Philadelphia for 12 years, and I still don’t agree with this philosophy,” he writes in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  “More isn’t always better.”

There are three parts of the education equation: teachers, students and parents. All three of these must be up and running at a minimum level for education to take place. Just as a car needs a working battery and transmission to operate properly, so a school system needs the support and cooperation of parents and students as well as teachers. If parents and students don’t get actively involved, how will extending the school day improve academic achievement? If education isn’t made a priority in children’s homes, what will requiring more professional development for teachers accomplish?

Accountability absolutists will dismiss Paslay’s take as an exercise in excuse-making, but his point that teachers are “only one part of a complex instructional ecosystem” will ring true to teachers.   Paslay’s Rx includes reducing class sizes in poorly performing schools, tuition reimbursement for teachers who agree to teach in failing schools, and most pointedly, “stop demoralizing teachers by making us the eternal scapegoats. In other words, hold parents and the community accountable, too.”

Do more of the sort of thing former Mayor John Street and former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson did in 2006, when they gave summonses to 6,000 parents of truant schoolchildren, bringing them to Temple’s Liacouras Center to talk about the importance of getting their sons and daughters to school.