May 2, 2007

Another Nail in the Coffin of the Savage Inequalities Meme

According to the Kozol crowd, our educational inequalities can be solved by putting poor and minority kids into affluent suburban schools.

Or not.

With the governor visiting, Montgomery County school officials might have been tempted to throw up some slides showing rising test scores or burgeoning Advanced Placement participation.

Instead, school leaders spoke candidly yesterday about the seemingly insoluble problem of getting students from some minority groups to succeed in advanced math courses.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) listened as school officials gave a PowerPoint presentation showing three schools, one each from affluent, middle-class and low-income neighborhoods, all with moribund math achievement among blacks and Hispanics.

It's not the schools; it's the bad instruction. Bad instruction that is present in most schools. Some kids just tolerate whole language and fuzzy math better than others. These are the smart kids who will succeed despite the instruction. The rest of the kids not so much.

Montgomery school officials were showing off M-Stat, their version of a celebrated initiative that uses statistics and computers to identify and analyze problems. The school system is among the first in the nation to adopt a variant of CompStat, the New York City police program that analyzes crime trends. The "Stat" concept has drawn notice not only for its success but also for encouraging lively -- and occasionally sharp -- exchanges among top brass.

Do you really need a computer to analyze and identify the problem? It's right in front of your face.

"M-Stat is really designed to focus on, 'Where do we have achievement gaps, and what are we going to do about them?' " said Donald H. Kress, chief school performance officer for the Montgomery schools.

Problem is they don't know what to do about the achievement gaps. Or, at least, they don't want to change what they are presently doing.

Ideally, the meetings stir revelations. Yesterday's session, for example, left participants with the disquieting fact that black and Hispanic students aren't reaping the benefits of attending high-performing schools in affluent communities.

One principal, representing a middle-class neighborhood, predicted that her minority math data would "flat-line" this year because the school is focusing on other reforms. In the often sugarcoated world of public education, that was a bold admission.

Finally, a truthful article on education from WaPo. I'm shocked.


Anonymous said...

Do you really need a computer to analyze and identify the problem?

It depends. If you grow a district carefully with consistently good leadership, things ought not have gone awry in the first place. OTOH, if things go awry and the Feds step in to help, then it will take a computer to generate the boxes full of paperwork needed to make your case and make things right. (cf NAACP v GA) A helpful metaphor: train derailment.

So, Ken, the question you might ask is "How did a large school district come [however belatedly] to recognize the obvious?" Here's their answer:

"MCPS ...[has] adopted the Baldrige Criteria as their continuous improvement model and all schools use a school improvement planning model based upon the criteria. As the only school system to ever receive Maryland's U.S. Senate Productivity Award, MCPS has been able to use feedback from both State and national awards programs to improve results in educating students of every age, academic, and socio-economic level."

The Baldrige framwork includes strategic planning; from The Strategic Plan for the Montgomery County Public Schools 2006-2011:

"For the entire school system, this also means identifying those leverage points where the greatest change aff ects the greatest good. For example, prekindergarten introduction of literacy skills is a leverage point for successful kindergarten reading programs. At the same time, fluency in reading by Grade 3 is a leverage point for not only success in elementary school but also acquisition of the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful in Honors and Advanced Placement courses in high school."

Allen might argue this is just common sense. I would point out that district leadership has the responsibility to institute policies appropriate to ensure employees demonstrate ethics, professionalism, and common sense toward the end of ensuring high student achievement.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever really looked at why some kids succeed in school? Is it because of, or in spite of, the school? Perhaps they just don't want to know.

They want more parental involvement because they see that students who do well have more involved parents. Do they know exactly what that means? I don't think it means that parents make sure that the kids go to the dentist, have medical coverage, get plenty of sleep, do their homework, and eat a proper breakfast. [Breakfast can't be it because my son eats almost nothing and his lunch bag comes home almost full.] It can't be that the parents go to 15 minute, twice a year parent-teacher conferences.

Can it be that the parents make sure that the homework gets done? Correctly? Reteach? Well, there's a problem. What, exactly, do they expect from parents? Do they expect parents to make sure that learning get done? That goes way beyond making sure homework gets done. If they were to come to our house, they would see much more than setting aside time for homework. They would see parents who make sure that learning gets done. Schools don't do that. They teach and they grade and they move on. The onus is entirely on the child and parent.

I've mentioned this before (probably at KTM) that after 30++ years of programming, I've had to deal with solving lots of problems based on very few clues. When I taught, my students always tried to solve problems with guess and check. They looked at the problem, made a guess, changed the program and saw what happens. Unfortunately, they made a guess without really understading the problem. With an almost infinite number of variables, this can be quite inefficient. I always told them that they can't just debug something correct. They have to understand the exact error (in detail) and track it back to the source.

In education, we have people who think the problem is the achievement gap. They want to reduce the gap. They don't seem to even question that there could be other, more important, problems. If they can't even define the proper problem, then what hope is there?

Statistics can be good (or bad), but where do they go from here if the high-performing schools can't solve the problem? You have to look at the individual data points. You have to get down to the dirty details on why some students succeed and others don't. Statistical guess and check doesn't work.

Kilian Betlach said...

Terrible, run-down schools contribute to poor instruction, because they provide a dis-incentive for quality professionals to choose such schools and continue to choose them day after day.

It is no accident that a company like google, with its myriad compliments and positive additions to its physical plant, boasts a high rate of employee satisfaction. Schools are no different, and while there are numerous contributing factors, the baseline quality of the environment in which teachers work (safe parking lot, clean restrooms, functioning lights, lack of insect infestation, odor-free, graffiti-free) affects their retention rate. The quality professionals have high standards and will not accept the situation, and either affect change, or leave.

When they leave, we know who takes their place.

Given the inability of a school system to limit the amount of negative, achievement reducing factors that natural occur in low-income environments, I find it absurd that they have no understood that people respond to the nature of their environment, and invested in school repair and beautification.

Should kids get bused? No. Community-based education is essential. Should we accept a situation that allows zip code to be the determining factor in the quality/ safety of the place the law mandates you go? No. So let's say I'm willing to go to the 3rd base with Kozol, but I'm not going all the way.

allenm said...

Allen's perfectly capable of making his own argument thank you very much.

If you expect an organization to display some behavior you have to either drive it in the direction you want it to go, entice it in the direction you want it to go or a bit of both.

Private enterprise has a phobia to retreat from - bankruptcy, organizational extinction - and a philia(?) to move toward, a big, fat profit-sharing check or an extra dividend. That's why the Baldrige Award makes sense in the business world, if you've got it, you can flaunt it. Prospective customers get the warm fuzzies because your Baldrige Award means that you have an ongoing, measured commitment to quality. They become customers, business burgeons and the profits flow. Huzzah!

In a world of ever-tightening competition the Baldrige Award confers an advantage and that advantage flows to the bottom line.

The analogous forces in public education would be what?

There's essentially no concern with bankruptcy but there's also no reward for superior performance. In fact, the idea of measuring performance is itself contentious. Imagine how well resistance to the measurement of profitability would play out in the private sector. Yet the ostensible reason for the existence of the public education system - education - isn't, or hasn't been until recently, measured.

If you're not measuring the quality of the product - education - how can you determine whether you're making progress toward the goal of a good education for all kids or wandering aimlessly in an educational wilderness? You can't and that, in a nutshell is what's wrong with public education.

As for busing, it's turned out, like many left-wing policies, to be damaging to the parties it was originally supposed to help.

The black kids didn't do any better soaking up all those suburban success rays and the white kids didn't do all that much worse in the lousy schools. But everyone's more tired having to wake up an hour and a half earlier then would otherwise be necessary, parents included.

But the important mission of busing, forcing tolerance upon the, supposedly, intolerant has been accomplished. The proponents of busing can congratulate themselves for striking a blow against racism even though, drat it all, they weren't around to be part of the Civil Rights movement. Well, no bother. They'll find some sort or another of racism to valiantly battle even if they have to create it themselves and find it nowhere other then their own imaginations.

Anonymous said...

It's not the schools; it's the bad instruction

Actually it's neither. The real reason why black and Hispanic students underperform white and Asian ones is because of differences in IQ.

KDeRosa said...

Hank, while that factoid is true it is also true that middle class blacks and hispanics should perform higher than low SES blacks and Hispanics.

KDeRosa said...

I don't think that there is much dispute that the gap actually exists, the dispute centers on the causes of the gap.

Kilian Betlach said...

Right, like the fact that IQ is a deeply flawed concept, the tests are poor, admit socially constructing lurking variables, and moreover respond to instruction.

Anonymous said...

The American Psychological Association put together a task force to assess the claims of "The Bell Curve" This is the money quote from their conclusion:

"African-American IQ scores have long averaged about 15 points below those of Whites, with correspondingly lower scores on academic achievement tests. In recent years the achievement-test gap has narrowed appreciably. It is possible that the IQ-score differential is narrowing as well, but this has not been clearly established. The cause of that differential is not known; it is apparently not due to any simple form of bias in the content or administration of the tests themselves. The Flynn effect shows that environmental factors can produce differences of at least this magnitude, but that effect is mysterious in its own right. Several culturally based explanations of the Black/ White IQ differential have been proposed; some are plausible, but so far none has been conclusively supported. There is even less empirical support for a genetic interpretation. In short, no adequate explanation of the differential between the IQ means of Blacks and Whites is presently available."

ms-teacher said...

I'm not saying that a gap does not exist. My problem was "hanks" comment about I.Q. I think anonymous summed it up quite nicely in their response.

"hank" appeared to me as possibly just trying to stir the pot without adding anything of value to the conversation.

Dr. P. said...

The video and papers located here discuss the Black - White IQ gap in great detail.

Anonymous said...

My position is that the IQ gap (or any other kind of gap) doesn't matter one bit. I talked before about knowing exactly what the problem is. In education, gaps are not the problem. The problem is that based on various standardized tests, the results stink. The goal is not to improve results on a relative scale or to close gaps. The goal is to improve results on an absolute, or world-class scale.

There are many structural or systemic problems in education that resist absolute improvements. That is why many in the education community focus only on small, relative improvements. Others, pushed by social agendas, focus on eliminating gaps, even though a focus on systemic problems would have a much greater absolute effect. In fact, we have talked in the past on how an absolute improvement in education might even increase some gaps. Gaps don't matter if many more kids get into college.

Focusing on gaps in a bad education system will not get kids (black or white) out of poverty. You will have an equality of bad education. As I have said many times before, individual kids matter, not ethnic or other groups or gaps or IQ. Education should be based on individual opportunity, not group equality.

I got into all of this because I see math curricula and schools that set very low expectations and do a very poor job of teaching kids the math they need to get into a technical career. I see many parents reteaching at home or paying outside tutors. This happens at schools in affluent areas. Moving a child from an urban school to an affluent school doesn't fix the systemic problems of education. You could worry about IQ, but you would be much better off fixing the real problem.

Ken's focus on DI is a way to solve the real, systemic problems of low expectations, bad curricula, and poor teaching methods. You can't expect poor, urban parents to do what many affluent parents are forced to do - reteach and tutor, and you can't give up and blame it on society, parents, or any other sort of external cause.

Keep up the good work, Ken.

Another example of looking at the wrong problem has to do with individual teacher views. Many teachers view the problem of education as what walks into their classroom (usually in middle or high school). They don't know how to read well. They don't know the times table. They have attitudes. As kids get older all problems begin to look like external problems. Individual teachers might have their own problems (like getting kids ready for standardized testing), but they aren't the problems of education.

The real question is why did these kids get to that classroom in the first place? I even see this at my son's (supposedly) good school. Kids are getting into 5th grade without mastering their times table. These kids aren't dumb. They don't have attitudes, but perhaps they will in a few years.

TurbineGuy said...

Bottom line... the IQ gap exists. People can debate about its causes all day, but on the frontlines of the classrooms and the schools, it doesn't matter whether it is caused by genetics, enviroment, or little green martians with ray guns.

Education is about doing two things, maximizing their achievement and as many D.I. advocates would argue, ensuring all kids achieve at a certain minimum standard.

The IQ gap has no place in schools because it is only a composite (though highly correlated on a large scale), of several different abilities.

Educators should only be concerned about ability in each specific skill, so that then can adequately place them in an appropriate class/group in that particular subjects.

Anonymous said...

Educators should only be concerned about ability in each specific skill, so that then can adequately place them in an appropriate class/group in that particular subjects.

And if a parent objects, either rightly or wrongly, what then?

harriska2 said...

Then they [the parents] are idiots? I wouldn't expect parents to know or understand grouping, curriculum, or the fact that it is the educators job to try to CATCH UP the kids.

TurbineGuy said...

"And if a parent objects, either rightly or wrongly, what then?"

Personally, if it was up to me, every school would have ability grouping that moved along at a preset pace. If parents decided to put their kids in a group that was above the students ability, I am sure the parents would reconsider after a few F's.

ms-teacher said...

As know you, I teach an ability based group this year. I have a second language learner who has gotten A's all year because he is in the appropriate placement. Mom, however, seems to think that the class is too easy. However, based on his work habits and REACH assessments, he will be able to move out of the REACH program (yay!) when he starts school next year as a 7th grader.

Otoh, I have other students who are failing, even though they are also appropriately placed, because of other issues that as a classroom teacher I am ill-prepared to deal with. The good news for them is that they will not be allowed to move out of their current placement until they show proficiency (based on their work and assessments from the REACH program).

Anonymous said...

I am sure the parents would reconsider after a few F's.

You'd be amazed.

CrypticLife said...

"Then they [the parents] are idiots?"

Most of the edu-bloggers would fully with this statement.

While it's a bit over-broad, I don't really disagree with it either.

harriska2 said...

Sad, as I'm one of the parents [an idiot]. But one thing that perturbs me is that parents are sometimes in denial. This keeps the child from getting what they need in order to catch up.

TurbineGuy said...

It occurred to me that most people equate ability grouping, with levels of difficulty, but it shouldn't be like that.

Every group should be taught to mastery, it would just take some groups more work and time to achieve it.

Under mastery teaching, even parents who had kids in a slower group could be assured that their children were learning the same things, and to the same degree (relatively) of competence.

harriska2 said...

From what I understand, ability grouping takes into consideration pacing and starting point. With tracking you get completely different texts, etc. With ability grouping it is the same texts. Also, you are not supposed to put kids into an ability group more than one grade ahead or behind, at least according to the Intro to DI book.

Anonymous said...

"Educators should only be concerned about ability in each specific skill, so that then can adequately place them in an appropriate class/group in that particular subjects."

When you toss in "each specific skill," you enter an organizational and administrative nightmare (been there, done that, it was my idea, and I apologized profusely for it for years). And when we did it, it was a dismal failure in only one program. Each grade level in each school is going to be just like that program. You can only make this work well in very small schools, and then, you don't have the variance in skills to justify it.

But if I may ask a question--and forgive me if I'm being naive here--but there's a great deal of talk about grouping by ability. If schools went back to actual standards and stopped promoting students who should be held back, wouldn't we have ability grouping without spending millions of dollars on worthless studies? I mean, isn't that what "1st grade" as opposed to "5th grade" is? Isn't the problem that we have students with 3rd grade knowledge in 7th grade classes?

Sorry, but the election is coming up, and like many here, I'm more than disgusted with wasting money on education.

TurbineGuy said...


The problem with just sticking to grade levels is that it limits the highest ability group to achieving at an average level. I agree that students not on grade level shouldn't be promoted, but how about the top 10% or so of bright kids who are capable of moving much faster through the system.

Also, lets say a student arrives in 3rd grade a year late because he needed two years in 2nd grade to get up to grade level. Because he is slower, by the end of the school year he will still be behind the average and faster moving students.

Implementing ability grouping for each subject will take an adjustment, but as I understand it, DI schools do it.

I would of guessed that large schools would of been easier to implement an ability grouping program. Theoretically you would need at least 3 teachers in any grade level, one to cover each group at any given time in any given subject.

Anonymous said...

"If schools went back to actual standards and stopped promoting students who should be held back, wouldn't we have ability grouping without spending millions of dollars on worthless studies? "

When I was growing up, kids really, really feared being held back. Even summer school was torture and a black mark on your reputation. It was a great motivator. (good or bad) There was no separation until 7th grade, which was in preparation for full tracking in high school.

Then came mainstreaming and then full-inclusion and some funny ideas about social promotion. Kids were supposed to magically become self-motivated learners, all in a very mixed ability classroom, and mixed ability learning groups. Expectations and standards evaporated.

Now that parents are demanding more, schools don't want to go back to the original "one size fits all, flunk or pass" philosophy, so some are adding ability grouping in the lower grades. At my niece's public school in Michigan, they start allowing kids to "move up" for certain subjects starting in 4th grade. This says nothing about the curriculum or expectations, but this might work for some kids. I would have to see the details. In her case, it's a full year jump up, so this may be difficult for many kids.

"Isn't the problem that we have students with 3rd grade knowledge in 7th grade classes?"

This could still happen with with separation by ability. Schools either need to flunk the kids or separate them by results (perhaps this is better than saying ability). I'm not sure how social promotion got so big in this country. Perhaps someone has a link to more information. I have never seen any sort of rational justification for it. It seems like it does more damage (over the long term) to the kids they think they are helping. It definitely hurts the kids who can move at a faster pace.

Catherine Johnson said...

"Parents are idiots" is an extremely bad attitude.

I thought we had established that.


Catherine Johnson said...

Seriously, though, it is a bad attitude.

I've spent -- oh, 15 years or so now having educators tell me I'm crazy.

In the beginning, I was crazy.

I was in a state of terror and anticipatory grief, and I couldn't bear to have a professional tell me my child was autistic.

I was in denial, though denial can't possibly capture what it's like to be hanging on for dear life by denying the obvious.

Professionals who know what they're about can deal with this.

We took Jimmy to a speech therapist who, seeing that I wasn't going to be able to cope with the word "autism" at that point, went to work and skipped the word.

Especially with a very disabled child, but in fact with all children, parents are IT. They are the child's bulwark against the world, the child's advocates, the child's fierce protector.

They do what they need to do.

That may not track with what teachers and therapists think they ought to do, but tant pis.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll post Part 2 of La Salle High School over at ktm.

This is apparently one of the best high schools in the country, and parents have an override on high school placements.

Catherine Johnson said...

Wickelgren had a whole scheme for accelerating kids without doing fancy ability grouping inside grades.

I wonder if I can find the old posting.

He had kids simply move ahead a year in math.

Kilian Betlach said...

The true value of ability grouping is not in its use with high-achieving students, but rather with low-achieving. With all due respect to the frustrated parents of the "gifted and talented," I'm not worried about your kid. There's bigger fish to fry.

All too often, ability grouping is used to provide greater opportunity for those high kids. We find the greatest range of instruction above grade level, while everyone else gets dumped in the "low" group, without thought or plan for remediating and addressing the factors that caused those kids to get there in the first place. Ability grouping needs to be used to lower the range of required differentiation, such that powerful, targeted instruction can be delivered to students in greatest need. The greatest level of academic need, as well as the greatest diversity of required instruction, occurs at these lower levels, and among the various ELL levels.

RWP's suggestion, while invoking the halycon days where gas was cheap, marriages happy, and all kids learned all the time, is insufficent to deal with SpEd students, ELL kids, and the stark sad reality of schools where teachers don't teach and leaders don't lead. The only worse than not having high standards, is applying high standards without the necessary support to accomplish those goals.

TurbineGuy said...

"The true value of ability grouping is not in its use with high-achieving students, but rather with low-achieving. With all due respect to the frustrated parents of the "gifted and talented," I'm not worried about your kid. There's bigger fish to fry."

TMAO, I am going to disagree with one point and agree with one point.

I agree that ability grouping would be most beneficial with struggling students, because high ability students will usually find a way on their own to thrive.

The upside is that its a win win situation for all kids.

The only point I would disgree on is the bigger fish point: The biggest economic returns from education are going to be from the above average students.

Kilian Betlach said...


You may be right, but I don't know. Logically that makes sense, but then I think about how much crime costs -- investigation, prosecution, incarceration -- and then I look at all the correlational data between high school graduation and incarceration. When kids don't achieve in school, they no longer go off to their merry jobs at the steel mill, earn a living wage, and provide for their families; they tend to become criminals.

Anonymous said...

The gifted may (or may not - I don't like how they are so casually tossed aside.) get by, but there is a huge gap until you get to those in the "low group". This is not a zero-sum tradeoff. I really dislike it when people pit one group against another. It doesn't have to be that way. This is not a money issue.

RWP was talking about the specific problem of ability grouping versus grade-level standards. The question is whether ability grouping is being used to ignore the problem of social promotion. If social promotion is eliminated, will the need for ability grouping go away, at least until 7th or 8th grade?

My view is that there are a couple of problems here. One is social promotion and grade-level standards. More social promotion creates a bigger need for ability grouping in the lower grades for all students. Whether the problem is genetic or motivational, the results are the same.

Second is the desire to have kids of all learning abilities taught in one environment. In the old days, all of the low end students were shipped off elsewhere. Out of sight - out of mind. No problem, right? The modern goal of inclusion is great, except when schools feel that inclusion means tracking by age in the same classroom, rather than just the same environment or school.

The problem I see at our public schools is that even though there is now a much wider range of abilities in the classroom, they don't want to separate the kids by ability. This requires a redefinition of grade-level expectations and spawns desperate solutions like differentiated instruction. It also inspires spiraling curricula that pedagogically allow kids to move ahead to the next grade because they will see the material again. (social promotion becomes pedagogical promotion) All of this requires lower or fuzzier expectations of content knowledge and mastery. NCLB is an attempt to stop this trend by setting minimal expectations. Unfortunately, these minimal standards become maximum goals.

The modern goal of full-inclusion is forcing the debate about ability-grouping into the lower grades. The problem is not money. It has to do with separating kids by ability or willingness to work and setting specific grade-level standards.

My problem with TAG/GATE programs (like tmao's comments) is that they are using the "special needs" angle of the top end kids to get ability grouping, without dealing with the ability grouping needs of all. All kids have "special needs" and the problem has to be solved for all and not just for one group.

Full-inclusion is a nice goal, but it can't be solved by differentiated instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Social promotion makes the problem worse. You have to have ability grouping. The question is how should this be done for the benefit of all; not just one segment of the population.

By the way, one could still argue that no social promotion and specific grade-level standards would do the trick. Grades become ability groups, not age groups.

"The only [thing] worse than not having high standards, is applying high standards without the necessary support to accomplish those goals."

What kind of support are you talking about? From the schools to the teachers? From the district to the schools? From the government to the districts? From the parents? From society? You have to be more specific here because one might interpret this as a cop-out.

harriska2 said...

Sorry, parents can be idiots. You took my quote out of context - if they don't want to do what is best for their child, then they are idiots. On "uneducated or ignorant person," from L. idiota"

So I feel confident to say that, yes, parents are idiots if they argue with ability grouping if the child needs it.

I am a parent, not a teacher. I admit I have seen some idiot parents who deny their child has a disability which then keeps the child from receiving needed services. They are idiots (ignorant) due to denial. Others might be idiots (ignorant) because they hold their average child up as brilliant.

I'm as hard on parents as I am on teachers. We all need to expect more of ourselves and be honest.

TurbineGuy said...

"My problem with TAG/GATE programs (like tmao's comments) is that they are using the "special needs" angle of the top end kids to get ability grouping, without dealing with the ability grouping needs of all."

Actually, one of my biggest complaints is exactly the opposite. To often gifted programs totally ignore acceleration for enrichment. My 1st grade daughter could do the silly projects in my sons 3rd grade pullout gifted class.

Anonymous said...

"halycon days"

I was hardly painting a rosy picture of education in the 60s. However, you either passed or you did not, and if you did not, you repeated the grade. It was that simple.

That was my point.

Anonymous said...

"To often gifted programs totally ignore acceleration for enrichment."

I've seen cases where parents fight for a gifted program but end up with enrichment. They think they've won, but they haven't. Pull-out usually means enrichment. Differentiated instruction means enrichment. Tracking usually means acceleration.