Can we talk a bit, think a bit, about the "achievement gap"?

Nothing so dominates Minnesota's discussion about education. Yet despite the concern about closing "the gap," we are not having a very intelligent discussion about it.

Just ahead of the last St. Paul school board election, Don Fraser's achievement-gap group got the candidates together at House of Hope on Summit Avenue. The former congressman and mayor from Minneapolis has been holding discussions about closing the gap for several years, Friday noons at a church in southeast Minneapolis.

For this meeting, Grant Abbott, Fraser's associate, posed three questions: What is the achievement gap? What can be done to close it? What is the role of the board?

Walking out afterward, I asked Fraser if he thought any one of the candidates had answered the first question — basic for the others. Don thought a moment, as is his way, then said, "No."

Clearly "the gap" is a function of the way we define "achievement."

For most Minnesotans, the gap probably is the difference between racial, ethnic and income groups in average proficiency scores on the state tests in English and math. The gaps are real; they develop early. Studies — as by James Heckman at the University of Chicago — show some students far behind, especially in vocabulary, when they first arrive at school.

Of course it's a given that we want all students to be proficient in the basic skills. But questions need to be asked about so narrow a definition of our goals, and about the implied concept of competition among groups. We'll come back to these. For the moment, let's go to Grant Abbott's second question: What would be required to "close the gap"?

In a foot race, one runner might be 200 meters ahead. The lead runner might slow; then the other would catch up. Or, the runner now behind might start running faster. How would we apply that analogy to the gap in learning?

Keep some students from getting a head start? Have the students now scoring better do less well? Get those now doing less well to improve faster than those ahead of them?

Not many would say: Have the higher-achieving students slow down. Most would say: Accelerate those now behind. But is that what we do?

There are "beat the odds" schools that get inner-city students scoring high. But overall, says Karen Seashore, Regents Professor in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, gaps widen as students move through the school years. Probably we will want all students to improve. But how then does the gap close?

Getting the low-achieving students learning rapidly enough to catch up would take some very special efforts. That's possible: In eight years as superintendent in Trenton, N.J., James Lytle — "Torch" because his hair was once red — tripled the graduation rate in that black district. But that required arranging everything to start where inner-city students are: with their attitudes and interests, their lived experiences, offering a culturally appropriate education.

Unhappily, most districts do not do that. They are unwilling to adapt to the values and lifestyles of inner-city youths because their schools would then not look "legitimate" in the eyes of those upon whom they depend for political and financial support. (See Lytle's "Prospects for Reforming Urban Schools," Urban Education, July 1992.)

Forced to choose between what's required to succeed with inner-city youth and what's required to maintain legitimacy, most districts elect to maintain legitimacy — hoping perhaps that it will be enough, if the gaps do not close, that they are seen as good people who meant well and were trying hard.

After 30 years of effort, is it possible that our current policy is at the same time failing to close the gap and, given its emphasis now on "common" standards, failing to push for high achievement? In other words, are we achieving neither equity nor excellence?

Frame it differently

Told that schooling does not close the gap, people quickly say: "Get children ready for K." Nothing has been more persuasively advocated and more widely supported than early education.

But do we do that? How possible is it to get public money past the K-12 system and into pre-K for those starting behind? Frustrated, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation turned to raising "scholarship" money privately for quality child care. This year the Minnesota Legislature voted $40 million to expand early education scholarships. But significantly more went into all-day kindergarten for all students.

How are we to think about a situation in which disadvantaged children start behind and in which school does not catch them up?

One of my associates uses a different analogy — still in the track meet but thinking about the high jump.

A high school boy should jump chest height. Some can clear head height. Some can't clear waist height. That's a gap in performance.

How would a coach close that gap? If a 16-year-old boy stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 190 pounds, is it possible for him to jump chest height?

Applied to learning generally, the analogy would suggest that some can't learn. Nobody accepts that. So we come back to the question: What is achievement? If you can't jump high, can you do well in some other event?

There are sprints and there are long distance races; there are jumping events and throwing events. At St. Francis High School, Magdalyn Ewen might not run the 100-meter dash. But she is No. 1 in the nation in the discus and shot put. She is achieving.

If there are multiple dimensions of achievement, why do we have this narrow concept of achievement in learning? Why does everyone talk as if there is not a broader dimension of quality in student and school performance?

Can you name an area of life in which quality is one-dimensional? Assessing an automobile, you think about purchase price, gas mileage, power, size, style, color, comfort, safety. Think about your college, your job, your church, your community, your house, even people you know. Isn't quality multidimensional? Aren't judgments made on balance? Why not in education?

For years, the argument for a broader concept of achievement was put down: You can't define it, and you can't measure it, so we won't consider it. Happily, that objection is fading. Read Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed." The National Research Council has just finished a six-year project to define and assess "21st-century skills" — cognitive and noncognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal; critical thinking, creativity, collaboration.

Bob Wedl, formerly Minnesota commissioner of education, asks: "If proficiency meant being able to speak two languages, which students in Minnesota would be 'high-achieving' "?

He asks, too: Why don't we define the "gap" as being below-proficient and close that gap first?

And: Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.

Whose definition?

We should ask why school has become the only route to achievement. Why do we keep the old institution of adolescence — that "separate society for the young" that denies them serious responsibilities early, separates them from adult society, tells them they have no function except to be schooled and cuts off work as a route up?

Why are so many things at which many young people regarded as "low-achieving" excel disregarded or disrespected by those defining success? Is it possible that we simply have middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes that are verbal, conceptual and abstract deciding that achievement is doing well what they do well? If so, is that fair to students who are not middle-class, without highly educated parents and with aptitudes different from those that lead to white-collar careers?

Why is assessment an assay, looking as a geologist would to see only if a rock does or does not contain, say, copper? Why isn't it instead an analysis looking to identify every element present?

Are we obliged to see achievement as a competition among groups? I went with the American delegation to Finland last August. For the Finns, a gap exists where the individual student is not performing to his or her potential — in language, science, the arts, whatever.

If gaps can be closed in elementary school, what about high school? Does the economy require all young people to be college-ready? (Check Paul Barton's reports on the Educational Testing Service website.) What does business actually value at the point of hire? Is the gap in basic proficiency all that matters, or should we be concerned equally about the gap in high performance, as Scott Miller argued in "An American Imperative?"

Real reform

So where does all this leave us?

With its one-dimensional notion of achievement and its advocacy of one model of school to produce "high performance," hasn't conventional "education reform" painted itself into a corner — raising expectations that it might not be able to meet?

Isn't the way out to recognize that all young people can learn better and need to learn better, but that different students will do well at different things, so that we should value many different "achievements"?

Please, is it OK to discuss these questions?


Ted Kolderie works on public-service redesign, and on the redesign of K-12 education, with the Center for Policy Studies. He has been a reporter and editorial writer with the Star Tribune, executive director of the Citizens League and a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.