Growing an Achievement Gap

The Bush administration has claimed lately that rising test scores and a narrowing black-white test score gap reflect the success of No Child Left Behind. Even if this is true -- and it is not at all clear that it is--the achievement gap, broadly conceived, is growing. Let me explain.

I recently visited an elementary school in Fairfax County, Virginia. Although Fairfax is generally affluent, the homes in this neighborhood are modest. The parents are workers -- in food, in dry cleaning, in construction, in lawn care. The school contains students from 40 nations and its ethnic makeup is 39 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Asian, 6 percent black, 18 percent white, 5 percent other. More than half don't speak English well, half qualify for free or reduced price meals and the mobility rate is double that of the district as a whole.

Yet, because it manages decent scores on the Virginia Standards of Learning Tests, the school is fully state accredited and has met the No Child Left Behind law's requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress.

But all the above doesn't really give you a feel for how the school operates or its successes.

The school burbles. It's a sound that emanates from kids who are content to be where they are. Student artwork covers the hall walls. Classrooms walls are richly decorated. Some students are painting a huge cafeteria mural showing the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids at Giza and other wonders of the world. In a hall, I meet a group returning from "butterfly release day." They had watched as caterpillars transformed themselves into butterflies and had just gone outside to set them free. Science from the real world not from a book. Students sometimes worked in small groups, sometimes alone and sometimes listened to the teacher talk to the whole class. Questions were plentiful.

It's as if the school lives under a shield. As if being part of an affluent district, though not affluent itself, offers cover, a Strategic Defense Initiative, from state and federal dictates.

Unfortunately, in many impoverished districts, no such armor protects the children or the teachers. In such districts children endure an endless diet of math and reading test-prep worksheets. Bubble-kids -- those perceived to be on the threshold of passing the test -- get extra time in reading and math, sometimes in gym class. "Sure things" and "hopeless cases" get identified and ignored. Science, if it happens at all, will happen in the two dimensions of a book. Thinking about those butterflies, I was reminded of a California superintendent's retort on being asked why her district wouldn't be making any more whale watching field trips: "Kids are not tested on whale watching, so they're not going whale watching." Music? Art? Social studies? Plays? Chess club?

In some such schools today, principals patrol the halls listening to make sure that the teachers are all following the exact sequence laid out by the scripted reading programs. One teacher who gave a creative answer to a question while using the highly programmed Open Court reading series was severely reprimanded by her principal. "But it was a teachable moment," she said. To which he replied "There are no teachable moments in Open Court!" Some principals have contracts specifying that test scores must show a certain increment each year. They administer copious "formative evaluations" which are merely mini-tests to see if the kids are making progress towards the big tests at the end of the year.

The outcome of this gun-barrel focus is the gap I mentioned at the outset. It was described well recently by the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Chester Finn, a longtime public school critic, and initially a supporter of No Child Left Behind. "It's increasingly clear that making schools and teachers focus narrowly on test results, especially in basic skills, squeezes a lot of the juice out of the curriculum and out of the educational experience itself...America's true competitive edge doesn't come from producing more engineers than India. It arises from the creativity, rebelliousness, and drive that result from a broad liberal education and the values and convictions that accompany such teaching and learning."

Kids facing an infinite series of phonics exercises are not enjoying that broad liberal education. They're not growing butterflies or watching whales. If the reading and math scores in the drilled schools rise, some people will claim success. Others will say, "At least they're getting more of an education than they used to." Somehow, I don't think so.