A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in an era of federally driven educational accountability focused on narrowing the chasms between the test scores and graduation rates of students of different incomes and races. The result was a whole new way of speaking and thinking about the issue: “Achievement gaps” became reformers’ catch phrase, and closing those gaps became the goal of American education policy.
Today, the notion of “closing achievement gaps” has become synonymous with education reform. The Education Trust, perhaps the nation’s most influential K-12 advocacy group, explains: “Our goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement.” The National Education Foundation has launched its own “Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative.” The California Achievement Gap Educational Foundation was launched in 2008 to “eliminate the systemic achievement gap in California K-12 public education.” Elite charter-school operator Uncommon Schools says its mission is running “outstanding urban charter public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare low-income students to graduate from college.” Education Week, the newspaper of record for American education, ran 63 stories mentioning “achievement gaps” in the first six months of this year.
The No Child Left Behind Act’s signal contribution has been this sustained fixation on achievement gaps — a fixation that has been almost universally hailed as an unmitigated good. Near the end of his presidency, George W. Bush bragged that NCLB “focused the country’s attention on the fact that we had an achievement gap that — you know, white kids were reading better in the 4th grade than Latinos or African-American kids. And that’s unacceptable for America.” Margaret Spellings, Bush’s secretary of education, said last year, “The raging fire in American education is the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.”