Friday, December 22, 2006

The only gap that matters - I suspect that the phrase "achievement gap" will ring in my ears periodically until every itinerant bovine has returned to his pasture. The phrase, or some variant, has come up in posts on this blog, and it has shown up again in a report prepared this fall by the Education Trust. (Education Trust comes to our attention as they released a study this week that purports to show how education funding decisions at the local, state and federal levels ensure that disadvantaged students receive "the fewest experienced and well educated teachers, the least rigorous curriculum, and the lowest quality facilities.")

Discussions of both performance gaps between white and minority students and funding gaps between urban and suburban schools are cut from the same cloth of the Let's doctrine of "equalism." But they are also counterproductive distractions as it pertains to what is going on in primary and secondary education today. Indeed, the greatest and most enduring performance gap is the gap between the educational competencies exhibited by today's students versus students from 100, 50 or just 20 years ago. And as whites have historically had the most continuous opportunity to receive a "quality" education, today's white students would seem to have been most shortchanged by the overall decline in educational outcomes in recent decades.

To get a full sense of the dimensions of the problem, one need only look at a current sixth-grade text and compare the subject matter to what was taught in the early 20th Century. I recently did exactly that, and was struck by how few graphs and pictures were required to teach basic math and reading. I quickly concluded that no sixth-grader would be able to comprehend, let alone complete math problems that were taught in a typical elementary school class of 1914; students using Milne's New York State Arithmetic, Second Book (how many sixth-graders could spell arithmetic?) were calculating profit and loss on business transactions, commercial discounts on list prices and commissions on sales.

There are many factors contributing to the precipitous decline in educational outcomes. The fact that we are a more transient and mobile society contributes tremendously. Americans are also part of a more fragmented, disconnected culture; we revere our iPods, cell phones and video games as totems of our individuality. We are also more likely to place less emphasis on academic achievement and focus on more dubious qualities, such as physical appearance and celebrity.

But the most salient factor would seem to be the fact that schools themselves provide more "content" (i.e.: safe sex and/or abstinence education, multiculturalism and learning about "Heather's Two Mommies"), and less social context in the way of cultural values and mores. In as much as schools are middle class institutions, they work best when they affirm and are affirmed by the middle class aspirations of the surrounding community. As our society recognizes too few "givens" of behavior and socialization, too much ends up in the laps of teachers.

Our conversations about education should not revolve around per-pupil spending. As discussed elsewhere, that is hardly the determining factor in educational outcomes. If it were, Washington D.C.'s schoolchildren would be head and shoulders above students in virtually every other school system in the nation. Nor should we focus on any perceived "performance gaps" between whites and blacks, as such gaps have existed throughout our nation's history and they will hardly be remediated by doing more of what has perpetuated them. Sadly, replacing public schools with private or charter schools is also an incomplete solution.

Instead, we all must make a commitment to creating an environment where communities inculcate their values into their children, and in turn, where teachers and schools can educate them. It may not take a village to raise a child, but it does take a society to socialize them.

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