Could Shifts In Education Policy Address Both Achievement Gaps?

A panel of education experts debated whether a focus on achievement gaps for disadvantaged students has turned attention away from others and explored how changes in policy could address both concerns.
by | October 19, 2011 AT 1:00 PM

Much of the education reform debate has centered on how to close achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers. But research released by the Fordham Institute has questioned whether the nation's best students are being jeopardized because of firm focus on less successful students. A recent panel discussion explored whether a shift in policy could close the "other" achievement gap.

The study, Do Higher Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?: Performance Trends of Top Students, tracked the performance of individual students who scored in the 90th percentile on the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress assessments in math and reading. The data pool was drawn from 4,800 school systems and about 5 million students. One group was followed from third through eighth grade; the other from sixth through tenth grade.

The study found, on average, nearly 60 percent of students remained in the 90th percentile throughout the timeframe. But, its authors observed, that meant between 30 and 50 percent (depending on age and subject) fell out of the high-performing group. Most of those students remained above the 75th percentile, but 13 percent of initially high-performing students fell below that.

John Cronin, study co-author and director of the Kingsbury Center at the Northwest Evaluation Association, stressed that the report did not seek to explain why some students had failed to maintain their high level of achievement. He did, however, explain the stakes for those that did. Students whose achievement fell below the 90th or 75th percentile would have fewer opportunities for higher education and a decreased likelihood of receiving any kind of financial aid to further their education, Cronin said.

Ulrich Boser, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, rebuffed some of the study's conclusions, however. He pointed out, as the study itself did, that slightly more students moved up into the high-performing percentile than dropped out of it. The focus should remain on helping disadvantaged students improve, Boser said.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, bridged some of the gap between Boser and Cronin. He did criticize "achievement gap mania," saying that it inevitably led to some students receiving the bulk of the attention at the expense of others. However, he did agree with Boser in that some students face a natural disadvantage because of their circumstances, often growing up in low-income areas, and their situation should not be ignored.

As efforts are taken to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, it seems likely that states will take a more central role in drafting education policy. So, Hess suggested, they should use the tools at their disposal to create a comprehensively improved education system that allows both groups of students to flourish. When pressed by Governing, he offered some outlines for what that kind of policy might look like:

  • Evaluate if schools are producing enough "bang for the buck," Hess said. The vast majority of households don't have children in school, so it is important that they feel invested in public education, he said. Explore and explain how quality schools lead to a better economic outlook for everyone, which will make the sell for more education funding easier. States should be analyzing the connection between the dollars being invested at schools and the outcomes those schools are producing.
  • Grow the pool of teachers. Hess praised the Teach for America program, which pays college graduates to teach for two years in high-needs areas. He said survey data shows a "substantial number" of college graduates would be at least interested in teaching. States should create non-traditional avenues for potential educators to join the school system and expand recruiting programs to bring them into the fold.
  • Allow higher-achieving schools to be centers for innovation. "Most of what passes for innovation today is not very innovative," Hess said. Extended school days or years and rigorous assessments are part of a "relatively pat formula," he said, that are usually employed at vulnerable schools. States should also allow successful schools to experiment. Hess pointed to digital learning in particular as a form of education innovation that would be more suitable for testing in middle-class or suburban schools.

Full video of the panel can be viewed below. Hess' three pieces of advice starts at 1:20:41.