Rick Hess’s Critique of Achievement-Gap Mania

By Reihan Salam
I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the latest issue of National Affairs, which includes Rick Hess’s fascinating and at times provocative discussion, or perhaps I say “devastating takedown,” of “achievement-gap mania.” The following paragraph gives you a hint as to Hess’s conclusion:

In essence, NCLB was an effort to link “conservative” nostrums of accountability to Great Society notions of “social justice.” The result was a noble exercise hailed for its compassion. The sad truth, however, is that the whole achievement-gap enterprise has been bad for schooling, bad for most children, and bad for the nation.

I found his discussion of the neglect of advanced and gifted education particularly convincing, as well as his recounting of how the “delusion of rigor” has undermined quality control across many domains. Hess ends his essay with an accounting of where “achievement-gap mania” has left the politics of K-12.
(1) Reforming education has become someone else’s problem:

First, achievement-gap mania has signaled to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about their kids. They are now expected to support efforts to close the achievement gap simply because it’s “the right thing to do,” regardless of the implications for their own children’s education. In fact, given that only about one household in five even contains school-age children — and given that two-thirds of families with children do not live in underserved urban neighborhoods, or do not send their kids to public schools, or otherwise do not stand to benefit from the gap-closing agenda — the result is a tiny potential constituency for achievement-gap reform, made up of perhaps 6% or 7% of American households.
Because middle-class parents and suburbanites have no personal stake in the gap-closing enterprise, reforms are tolerated rather than embraced. The most recent annual Gallup poll on attitudes toward schooling reported that just 20% of respondents said “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” was the most important of the nation’s education challenges. Indeed, while just 18% of the public gave American schools overall an A or a B, a sizable majority thought their own elementary and middle schools deserved those high grades. The implication is that most Americans, even those with school-age children, currently see education reform as time and money spent on other people’s children.

(2) Reforming education for the majority of students who come non-poor families is seen as somehow unnecessary:

Second, achievement-gap mania has created a dangerous complacency, giving suburban and middle-class Americans the false sense that things are just fine in their own schools. Thus it’s no surprise that professionals and suburbanites tend to regard “reforms” — from merit pay to charter schooling — as measures that they’ll tolerate as long as they’re reserved for urban schools, but that they won’t stand for in their own communities. …
Gap-closing strategies can be downright unhelpful or counterproductive when it comes to serving most students and families, and so can turn them off to education reform altogether. Longer school years and longer school days can be terrific for disadvantaged students or low achievers, but may be a recipe for backlash if imposed on families who already offer their kids many summer opportunities and extracurricular activities. Policies that seek to shift the “best” teachers to schools and classrooms serving low-achieving children represent a frontal assault on middle-class and affluent families. And responding to such concerns by belittling them is a sure-fire strategy for ensuring that school reform never amounts to more than a self-righteous crusade at odds with the interests of most middle-class families.

This is one reason why Hess rightly bristled at the crusader mentality that informs films like the recent Waiting for ‘Superman.’

(3) Education reform has come to be associated with metrics that aren’t particularly helpful for schools that serve non-poor students.

Third, achievement-gap mania has prompted reformers to treat schools as instruments to be used in crafting desired social outcomes, capable of being “fixed” simply through legislative solutions and federal policies. This tendency is hardly surprising, given that most of the thinking about achievement gaps is done in the context not of education reform but of “social justice.” Thus gap-closers approach the challenge not as educators but as social engineers, determined to see schools fix the problems that job-training initiatives, urban redevelopment, income supports, and a slew of other well-intentioned government welfare programs have failed to address.
With the social engineer’s calm assurance that there are clear, identifiable interventions to resolve every problem, today’s education reformers insist that closing the achievement gap is a simple matter of identifying “what works” and then requiring schools to do it. And integral to determining “what works” has been evaluating different strategies in terms of their effects on reading and math scores and graduation rates. This approach has been especially popular when it comes to identifying good teachers. But while the ability to move these scores may be 90% of the job for an elementary-school teacher in Philadelphia or Detroit, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to use these metrics to evaluate teachers in higher-performing schools — where most children easily clear the literacy and numeracy bar, and where parents are more concerned with how well teachers develop their children’s other skills and talents.

As Hess has argued elsewhere, what we really need is a more diverse ecology of specialized instructional providers tailored to meet the needs of individual students, including advanced and gifted students, rather than rigid carrot-and-stick systems designed to “fix” centralized command-and-control systems not by making them less centralized and command-and-control, but rather by issuing new commands from the center.
(4) This “what works” mentality, which implicitly assumes that there are a few simple nostrums that “work” in every or at least most cases, has proved a barrier to innovation:

Fourth, the achievement-gap mindset stifles innovation. When a nation focuses all its energies on boosting the reading and math scores of the most vulnerable students, there is neither much cause nor much appetite for developing and pursuing education strategies capable of improving American schools overall.
Consider the case of school choice. Today, for all the vague talk of innovation, charter schools and school vouchers rarely do more than allow poor, urban students to move from unsafe, horrific schools into better conventional-looking schools. The leading brands in charter schooling, for instance, almost uniformly feature traditional classrooms; an extended school day, school year, or both; and a reliance on directive pedagogy attuned to the needs of disadvantaged students. In other words, these are terrific 19th-century schools. One has to search long and hard among the nation’s more than 5,000 charter schools to find the handful that are experimenting with labor-saving technologies, technology-infused instruction, or new staffing models better suited to the 21st century.
Furthermore, the intense focus on gap-closing has led to a notion of “innovation” dedicated almost entirely to driving up math and reading scores and graduation rates for low-income and minority students. Promising innovations that promote science, foreign-language learning, or musical instruction have garnered little public investment or acclaim. Even in terms of math and reading, there is not much interest in interventions that do not show up on standardized state assessments.

(5) And interestingly, Rick argues that gap-closing has dimmed interest in promoting racially and socioeconomically integrated schools.
As always, the essay is worth reading in full. I haven’t done it justice.