Friday, August 21, 2009

What I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science (Part 9): Obstacles to Closing the Achievement Gap

This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:

#2)“There are 3 main obstacles to closing the achievement gap”

With some history and causes on the table, the next question follows suit: how is it that we still have an achievement gap? Over 40 years have passed since that monumental Coleman Report concluded that our schools were failing many kids, and longer still have we been aware of a deep divide in schools and culture that allows many students to slip through the cracks. If we know some of the causes, surely the next step ought to have been fixing what is broken. This has been a tougher chore than it sounds.

The obstacles encountered in movements aimed at closing achievement gaps between subgroups of students are numerous, but I believe the three that give the most impedance to said goal (and ironically the ones easiest to change) are lowered expectations for students, reluctance to embrace effective research-based strategies, and opposition to school and teacher accountability.


Lowered expectations for students

In the period of heightened expectations for all students with the somewhat recent introduction of standards as tangible learning goals, it is surprising to hear how expectations continue to factor into the achievement gap. Research shows that self-fulfilling prophecies related to expectations (the “Pygmalion effect”), where a teacher's perceptions of a student's academic prowess impact the future academic success obtained by that student, do occur (cite). When a teacher expects that a student will not succeed, this lowered expectation negatively impacts the quality of time and instruction that teacher will give the student, providing an outlet for teacher biases to affect student achievement. Students understand when little is expected of them, and respond by adapting their work ethic to fit these lesser goals. Low expectations thus cause even lower expectations, and this downward spiral continues.

Lowered expectations can be found on a more systematic level, too. Despite rigorous standards enacted to help ramp up the expectations of curriculum in all schools, there are still educators who do not base their curricula on the standards. That the rigor of curriculum in underperforming schools is lower than in more well-to-do schools is a product of learning deficiencies those students have accumulated from past years, the sentimental excuse is for such practices. Particularly in the later grades, often times students at underperforming schools like these are lacking by a number of years in reading level and math skills, making grade-level instruction nigh impossible. The stressed teacher decries, How can grade-level standards, then, be useful in these circumstances?

Teachers need to have high expectations for all students, even those with abilities below grade-level. If the standards encompass skills and knowledge hitherto unobtained by the class, the standards have succeeded in defining what skills and knowledge need to be taught. For instance, if the goal is “Z”, the teacher must make sure that “A” through “Y” are taught and reviewed along the way. As an example, noting the importance of reading in every subject, every teacher is in essence a primary language instructor who needs to work with students to make up for any given reading deficiencies. Grade-level standards can thus be a goal for all students, although the path toward that goal can be dictated differently depending on what interventions the students need most.


Reluctance to embrace effective research-based strategies

The importance of education research cannot be stressed enough. Utilizing the scientific method to determine correlations and potential causal factors between different factors, like student achievement and teacher effectiveness, gives educators unbiased advice for how best to teach their students. Good research studies, with a solid experimental design and strong external validity, give an account of the successes and failures a teaching strategy likely will have in a given environment, and are the best way to determine what will help close the achievement gap. The trouble is, they aren't often effectively used.

Stanford university professor Caroline Hoxby writes of this troublesome trend:

“Most interventions in education (class size reductions, pre-kindergarten programs, classroom technology, paying students for performance, drop-out prevention) are based not on evidence that they work, but rather on the “cardiac test” (e.g., “we just know in our heart that this is right”). Moreover, the interventions are not scientifically evaluated, sometimes because advocates oppose evaluation, but more often because no one bothers to set up pilot, randomization, or baseline data in the first place.

Thus, even though almost every popular intervention has been tried many times in American schools and is probably being started by some district today, we know very little about what works. If we did nothing other than analyze the effect of every intervention that is going to be tried, we would be far more likely to close the achievement gap.”

The opposing strategy to using research-based methods to determine what works is relying on intuition, or belief, that something is or is not working. There are teachers out there who would rather use intuition than data to inform their instruction, but we simply can't continue this trend. It is foolish to assess student achievement using our own teacher opinions rather than with objective data, in that it accentuates the impact of any known and unknown biases we have in the assessment process. And while data includes more than just test numbers, it certainly doesn’t include a vaguely defined “intuition”, especially when experiences from one teacher cannot be adequately compared to another, as intuition is not a standardized benchmark.

We don't ascribe belief any power in other sciences and we certainly won't make steady progress toward closing achievement gaps if we keep doing so in education.


Opposition to school and teacher accountability

As talk of merit pay and linking teacher evaluations to student scores increases, many teachers reveal themselves as opponents to such accountability. These teachers list out a number of arguments against such accountability measures, some addressed in the above two obstacles. They argue against standards, against standardized tests, against being evaluated on if their students succeed or fail, and this resistance is problematic for education.

As teachers, we take on the job for a lot of reasons, but most at least want to be responsible for our students’ learning and growing desire to learn, and we feel that if we put our hearts into teaching then we will help our students learn better. Every teacher has at least an ounce of self-confidence in this matter, and asserts that he or she can help all/most/many students reach higher learning goals and maybe even that elusive “knowledge is power” state of mind . It just doesn't follow that then a teacher would decry testing and evaluations based on student achievement. Simply put, if our job is getting kids to learn more, we should be evaluated on if the kids learn more.


Lowered expectations for students, reluctance to embrace effective research-based strategies, and opposition to school and teacher accountability are likely the three largest obstacles that we currently have in closing the achievement gap, and ironically, they are the easiest to close. Schools and teachers simply have to hold themselves accountable to teaching rigorous state standards and to utilizing objective data and research-based methods for effective strategies and practices.

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