The Policy-Produced Achievement Gap

One problem with a system that rewards high performing schools is that the recognition of high performing schools requires the existence of low performing schools. As we struggle with the challenge of improving public education, no matter how much higher the assessment scores, some will still out-perform others reinforcing the achievement gap.

Educators joke “ask a student” for help with technology in the classroom; this is evidence of the growing abilities of our students. As we increase the rigor and ratchet up the expectations, our students are becoming more adapt and able to meet these requirements and excel. Today’s graduation mandates far exceed the requirements when I graduated just 25 years ago. For example, today’s graduates must complete four math courses that start with Algebra I. My high school transcript includes three math courses: Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and Algebra II. Currently, Algebra II is generally taken in the sophomore year of high school, while many students actually take it as a freshman.

I observed a middle school science class last year in low performing school, and the students were successfully balancing chemistry equations. I didn’t even see these until I was a junior in high school. And today’s teachers are looking for ways to take these traditional high school lessons to their elementary schools. I was astonished two weeks ago when nearly fifty elementary teachers showed up at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon for a conference presentation I gave on teaching research writing to elementary students.

Districts are looking for an edge, a way to climb to the top of the pack and be recognized for high performance. This has led to many innovative approaches in education, often improving the learning environment. However, I have also observed corruption – no, I haven’t seen any evidence of cheating on the test, but I have seen efforts to take shortcuts – shortcuts that cheat the students that rely on these schools for their future success.

These are some of the ways desperate districts, administrators, and teachers are cheating our students.

-         Spending class time on benchmarks meant to measure student growth, but rarely offer the data needed to improve class instruction.

-         Implementing curriculums that diminish the teacher’s role in the classroom and fails to differentiate for the students’ ability, interests, or diversity.

-         Focusing on test prep activities and burning students out often before they leave elementary school.

Unfortunately, these shortcuts also provide excuses when the students do not perform well. When students are unsuccessful, administrators need scapegoats: teachers didn’t use data to inform instruction or curriculums didn’t meet the guarantees provided by the publishers. Additionally, the schools most likely to cheat their students are the schools
most at-risk, so as high-performing districts implement innovative teaching strategies that provide choices and engagement for the students, some low performing districts struggle to resist what seems like the quickest way to success through these shortcuts.

Many districts resist the temptation to cheat their students in favor of improved classroom pedagogy believing that the assessments will take care of themselves with quality
instruction. These districts have the best chance at closing the achievement gap. Taking shortcuts and cheating students out of a meaningful education can only result in low achievement both in the world beyond the classroom and the mandated assessments.


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