Thursday, November 15, 2012

Raising the ceiling

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, writes of “The Suburban Education Gap.” Long-time readers of this blog know that America doesn’t have one education gap. There are really two. The first -- the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to graduate from high school college -ready than children from more advantaged circumstances -- gets much of the attention. Education reform efforts are usually focused on raising achievement levels for these children, which is certainly a worthy goal.

When Americans hear that our children do poorly on international comparisons (like TIMSS and PISA) we assume it is because of high levels of poverty in inner cities. That’s part of it. But it’s only part. As Levine reminds us, “of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42 percent are proficient in math.” Even when you look at ritzy suburbs, only a few perform as well as students in Finland or Singapore. Evanston, Ill. does well. So does Scarsdale, N.Y. But places you’d think would be stellar, such as Greenwich, Conn., or Montgomery County, Md., or Grosse Point, Mich., do not outshine the international competition, Levine writes.

Why is that? I’ve been pondering this in light of some observations of my own school district. Lower Merion in PA is known for being very good. The high school students win various academic competitions, and in that nice marketing letter accompanying my property tax bill, I learned about all the wonderful colleges they are admitted to. My son’s kindergarten class has iPads! But looking at what my son is being assessed on, the expectations for being at benchmark largely center on being able to recognize numbers and letters. If you can do that, all is good.

In a world of many woes, raising the ceiling does not feel like an urgent educational priority. But it should be. As Levine writes, “The international achievement gap makes the U.S. less competitive and constitutes a threat to national strength and security. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if it performed at Canada’s level in math.”

So why aren’t we focused on raising achievement levels among kids who aren’t stuck in basket case schools? I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition, that by raising standards for such children, we’ll take our eyes off the ball for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. You can raise the ceiling and the floor. Refusing to look at how low our ceiling is amounts to sticking our heads in the sand.

The existence of the “suburban education gap” is why I get frustrated by narratives lamenting pushy parenting and how much pressure children in well-to-do suburbs are allegedly under. We need to relax and not push academic achievement so hard, the story goes. But while there’s no point in making children miserable, the reality is that we’re not asking nearly enough of kids. There is no kindness in failing to challenge a bright child’s little mind in the days when she still thinks learning is wonderful.


lgm said...

Jay Matthews covered many of the reasons in his book "Class Struggle".

sherryl said...

My son went to a gifted school that had him working at his level in math. We had to switch schools in grade three and his new school saw his abilities and set him up with "distance learning" for math. In other words he does not do the grade level school math, but works at his own pace. He is in grade 7 now and is almost finished grade 8 math. More kids could be challenged this way. We are in Canada, but I am sure there are distance learning centers everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I would be concerned about poor decision making on the part of academic administrators and curriculum authors who think Kindergarden kids benefit from ipads. Young children need practice handling frameworks with ambiguous, incomplete information. Apps are hermetically sealed containers with only scripted dynamic responsiveness to children. They are only slightly better than having a TV in that K class and much worse because adults think they are giving the kids some kind of advantage by using them (indeed the author of this post appears to be bragging).

Anonymous said...

I'm a little worried that the core curriculum standards is one way to clamp down the ceiling. We had NCLB which was designed to place a floor in our educational system, and now we are asking all the states to adopt the same standards. While this may bring up some states, I am a little worried that it may bring down others. So, now the state ceilings may become national.