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Achievement Gap Defies A One-Size-Fits-All Fix

Laurence D. Cohen

December 06, 2010

To the surprise of no one, an advocacy group has determined that Connecticut’s educational ‘achievement gap’ between white students and minorities continues right through high school graduation.

The ConnCAN methodology is open to challenge (could Connecticut’s huddled white clusters of snobby, suburban rich kids simply be so much better than most other clumps of kids in the nation that the Connecticut ‘achievement gap’ looks worse than it really is?), but the academic quibbles are hardly the point.

The advocates for racial justice want the white folks to remain sufficiently guilty — and the powers-that-be in Connecticut want it clear that they aren’t engaged in some sort of racist conspiracy to keep the black man down.

Both sides in these kinds of street-theater debate — if ‘sides’ are what they are — tend to spend too much time huffing and puffing about data points — or so busy crafting rhetorical thunderbolts that no one ever gets around to such mundane things as ‘solutions.’

Assuming that the ConnCAN numbers are valid, even in a mediocre kind of way, the scenario would suggest that minority high school seniors, in the aggregate, are at a crippling competitive disadvantage to their white peers.

Although ConnCAN would cut out its collective tongue before saying so out loud, their numbers suggest that the current cluster of minority high school seniors should be shipped, via air ambulance, to a remedial education program at the nearest community college, where they can be transformed into something sufficiently presentable to do manual labor on behalf of the white kids in their graduating class.

Is that an unfair characterization? To be sure, there are black and Hispanic kids in those high schools with the intellect and family background to excel. Again, what the ConnCAN numbers suggest, but will never be acted upon, is a return to aggressive ‘tracking’ that snatches the smartest of the students and funnels them into special programs, where they will learn to be snobby and arrogant and successful investment bankers and newspaper publishers.

Again, the unspoken truth behind the numbers and assertions generated by ConnCAN or the state’s Commission on Educational Achievement is that upper-middle-class white (and, for that matter, black and Hispanic as well), will flee from the room screaming before being placed in an educational environment that requires them to cope with students two or three grade levels behind in such fundamentals as reading and math.

Again, if some of the ‘gap’ numbers are accurate, they also suggest that the future of one-size-fits-all schools is limited in metro areas with a racially mixed student body. Super-discount stores don’t cater to millionaires and high-end retailers don’t go after the butcher, baker and welfare mom. You pick your target and do your best. Is there one school, one curriculum, one teacher-training program appropriate for a student body that exhibits major gaps in achievement, divided by race?

Of course, the purpose of these “achievement gap” exercises is not to fuss with the current generation of victims, but to plan for the future — a future that inevitably includes more spending on education, without accountability for the impact of the initiatives to reduce the gap.

Truth be told, there will always be a ‘gap’ separating some student achievement from another. We tend to focus on race, but our education system is not structured to offer up a level playing field, no matter what the family circumstances.

As American Enterprise Institute education scholar Frederick Hess puts it: “It’s hardly surprising that a system which spent centuries struggling to get students off the street and into schools … wasn’t built to educate every student to a high level.”

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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