Watching the Gap

Several articles lately have looked at achievement gaps. From the Wichita Eagle (“Black churches hope to help students bridge achievement gap,” June 7):

“For example, about 47 percent of black sixth-graders scored below standard on the 2005-2006 reading test, compared with 33 percent of sixth-graders across the Wichita school district. About 61 percent of black 10th-graders scored below standard in math, compared with about 49 percent of 10th-graders across the district, according to the state Department of Education.”

Members of the Wichita Alliance of Black School Educators want to hold more discussions about what to do. There’s one encouraging sign: some schools are making a difference:

“We have a number of cultural issues that are very serious and very grave that demand our attention,” said Kevin Myles, president of the Wichita branch NAACP, who has two children in public schools. “In the interim, there are schools around the country who have figured out how to make it work.”

It’s not unusual, when the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy makes a comment about the need for improving the performance of schools, for someone to say “Yes but what about the parents who don’t care.” Never mind that in other circumstances this might be classified under “blaming the victim.” As Myles points out, the record of schools–even those with similar demographic characteristics–is not uniform.

To close the gap, we need innovation. That’s currently inhibited by the bureaucracy and red tape in the status quo. One way to cut through that is to make greater use of charter schools, private scholarship funds, and yes, even vouchers or tax credits for attendance at private schools. It’s the “light a fire under their feet” strategy.

The article also mentions tutoring programs conducted by local churches. Good for them. So why not make more formal uses of such programs?

Meanwhile, the Pew Hispanic Center came out with a report on a group of students called, in the education industry, “English Language Learners.”

“The results of national testing conducted in 2005 shows that nearly half (46%) of 4th grade students in the English language learner (ELL) category scored “below basic” in mathematics in 2005–the lowest level possible. Nearly three quarters (73%) scored below basic in reading. In middle school achievement in mathematics was lower still, with more than two-thirds (71%) of 8th grade ELL students scoring below basic. Meanwhile, the same share (71%) of 8th grade ELL students scored below basic in reading.”

Both the Hutchinson News (“Schools face stubborn gap in achievement,” June 7) and the Parsons Sun (“Kansas schools face an achievement gap,” June 7)  provide a Kansas angle. From the Sun:

Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, agreed that school districts are expected to test students who don’t adequately know the test’s language. Resulting low test scores are then held against those districts.

This is curious but standard language: held against those districts. The focus is not on students, but on the district. Not on the person we seek to educate, but on the institution we currently rely on for achieving that goal.

The achievement gap has been there for a long time. No Child Left Behind highlights that gap, by calling for structural changes (tutoring, some limited school choice, and in time, greater school choice). Discussions of the law focus on the implications for institutions, as if requiring these changes of them is in and of itself a bad thing. But if that’s what it takes to, say, provide a student the tutoring that leads to success, institutional disruption is hardly a major concern.

Here’s some more Kansas-specific information from the Sun:

In Kansas, data from the state Department of Education showed English language learners improved their test scores along with other Kansas students from 2000 to 2005.

Still, the gap remains significant between groups. State assessments showed just 5 percent of the white population scored at the lowest levels in third-grade reading results last year. In contrast, about 22 percent of English language learners were at the lowest level. That percentage grows larger in the upper grades.

Kansas’ Hispanic student population has been the only enrollment growth for many school districts in recent years.

Three of the state’s largest districts, Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City, now report a majority of their students are minorities, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards. That’s mainly because of a rapid increase in Hispanic enrollment, primarily Mexican immigrants.

Ten more districts, including Emporia and most in southwest Kansas, also are now majority minority.

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