Achievement Gaps Abound

I read an article this morning that was not about the coronavirus: The Misleading Racial Achievement Gap Statistic. Yes, I do take a break from binging on bad news periodically, but this article was still a version of bad news. The author, Kenny Xu, writing for Quillette (“Where Free Thought Lives”), cited efforts in the Montgomery County Public School System to eliminate the achievement gap between racial groups. 

MCPS is one of the wealthiest public school systems in the US. It is diverse in every way except wealth. Yet, in this privileged community, disparities exist in the achievement of racial groups and the schools have been doggedly trying to eradicate this divergence and failing. What’s going on?

We are generally advised not to speculate on all possible causes of racial achievement gaps because we might wander into forbidden territory such as genetics or culture. But one thing districts are considering as they struggle with this challenge is eliminating programs for high achieving students (aka “gifted programs”). The thought is that these programs only serve to exacerbate any gaps by strengthening the skills and talents of students who are already ahead of the game. If we don’t help the best students get better, then perhaps the gaps between the best and the rest will diminish. OK, the math works, but then that begs the question of why we wouldn’t want to help every kid do their best.

As I read today’s article and reflected on similar articles from recent years, I thought about an achievement gap that was much closer to home for me. My older sister was clever from the get go. I was remarkably ordinary. There was not a gifted program in our day, so our parents were offered the option of letting her skip a grade. They declined, a decision my sister later criticized. 

My sister and I grew up with the same parents, in the same house, in the same town, same schools, same church, same library, etc. The same books, magazines, and newspapers adorned our living room. We played the same board games. But we were just not the same. We had different personalities. I learned to read in school. She might have known how to read at birth. I did OK in school if I worked at it. She breezed through advanced classes, debate club, Girl’s State, etc. There really was nothing she couldn’t do.  When I had the same teachers she had had, they wondered what had happened to me. 

Most of us know that different kids from the same family are likely to be different in ways that are not accounted for by birth order or sex. So what’s going on within families? Within a family, we can speculate about different distributions of genetic material, different conditions in utero, or different conditions during very early life. 

In my case, I’m pretty sure my sister got the best genes my parents had to offer. Perhaps my sister drove my mom to smoke more cigarettes when she was pregnant with me (sis was “intense”) thus driving down my birth weight and depriving my brain of O2. Perhaps being born in the later stages of WW II contributed to social stressors that affected tiny me more than my older sister. 

Whatever the case, there was really no way for the school system to equalize our outcomes. Wasn’t gonna happen. Teachers did their best with me. I got a decent education; I went to college; I earned a living; I married a nice guy; I had a positive impact on the world in some small ways. I’m happy to have survived into my 70s. 

My sister, on the other hand, was valedictorian, started college, but got pregnant then married and dropped out. She became a stay-at-home mom (her husband wouldn’t let her work); she baked cookies and did PTA duty; worked at a church thrift store; arranges flowers for her church to this day. 

So what should we make of this family achievement gap and does it have any lessons for other achievement gaps? I would make these points: not every kid has to be at the top of whatever scale we’re using to measure achievement. We just don’t know all of the factors that lead kids to score differently so we certainly can’t equalize them. We need to help families help kids so all kids get off to a good start. Require employers to pay living wages; expand parental leave; provide health care for all; make child care and elder care available and affordable. Provide pre-natal and ante-natal care for moms and some version of Finnish baby boxes so families know we all care about all our kids. 

As for schools, yes, we need to make sure all kids have good schools and good teachers. The goal should be to help all kids master essentials and learn how to explore their own interests. Ordinary kids can make extraordinary contributions to the world if we allow them to use whatever talents they have. It helps if they are kind and generous and persistent. 

Achievement gaps are interesting for academics, but we shouldn’t even want to make all kids the same. In My Humble Opinion. 

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