Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Plan for Closing the Achievement Gap (revised)

No domestic issue has drawn more attention or money than attempting to close the socioeconomic and racial achievement gap.

Now, despite a half century and countless innovations from Head Start to Stop Drop, from integration to self-segregated Afrocentric schools, from affirmative action college admission to disparate impact lawsuits on CEO selection, the achievement gap remains as wide as ever.

Even Head Start, which politicians for decades, trumpeted as our best hope, has recently been determined, in the definitive evaluation of 40 years of Head Start conducted by the U.S. Office of Education, to have no enduring positive effects.

So it would be hubristic of me to assert that I know how to close the achievement gap but, of course, we should keep trying. So if I were to bet my money, these are the interventions I'd bet on:

1. Reduce teen pregnancy. It's well established that children of teenage parents are at greater risk of school and life failure. So junior and senior high schools, especially those with high teen pregnancy rates, should implement data-driven teen-pregnancy prevention programs. The research does not support abstinence-only programs and so political pressures to restrict such programs to abstinence-only should be resisted.

Sex education should include what I call a Choose Your Parent Well component. You can't choose your parents but you certainly can be wise or less wise in choosing the parent of your children. The decision of whom to be the father/mother of your children may be your life's most important. Especially among at-risk teens, there's a tendency to fall in love with a person more on how "cool" he is than how intelligent and motivated he is. But is that the person whose genes you'd like your child to have? Is that the person you want to parent your child?

To ensure that girls have the child with the father they want, when they're ready, birth control, including long-term reversible implantable Jadelle, should be made available free, on demand, at all high schools.

Creators of programming aimed at teens (sitcoms, news, movies, video games, music videos, record labels) should be encouraged to create more content that would compellingly display the Choose Your Parent Well message as well as the non-romantic outcomes of teen pregnancy.

2. Provide parenting education early. To increase the chances that from Day One, parents have the tools to be good parents, full effort should be expended to ensure that high-quality parenting education is highly accessible, especially to pregnant teens in low-income locales. The best parenting education involves interactive video of critical incidents in parenting--for example, what to do if your baby won't stop crying? What to do to ensure your child develops good language skills? Ethics? What if your child won't do her homework? What if you think your child is taking drugs? Is sexually active?

True innovation in delivery systems is required. For example, high school websites and others heavily visited by at-risk teens, for example,, should be encouraged to post the aforementioned parenting training course.

To ensure its availability to people without computers, the community center in low-income housing projects should have a computer installed that includes the parenting education program as well as other interactive-video programs, for example, on teen pregnancy prevention and on preventing and curing substance abuse. In hospitals, especially those serving at-risk communities, the TV in each new-mom's patient's room should have a TV offering the aforementioned parenting training.

To receive welfare benefits such as TANF funds, teen or perhaps all parents should be required to successfully complete the online or an in-person parenting education course, much as we require aspiring drivers to complete a driver's education course.

3. Improve teacher training. Absurdly, pre-K to grade 12 teachers are trained primarily by theory-oriented academics who have never taught in a pre-K to grade-12 classroom, let alone been master teachers there. That must change. The primary instructors of teachers in-training should be master K-12 teachers, including those who have produced excellent results in teaching low-achieving students.

Teachers of classes in low-achieving schools may well need to be masters at motivation, using a skill set beyond that which is taught in most teacher education programs. So, for example, the increasingly required multicultural education course should include master-teacher-taught lessons on the art of classroom management, including strategies particularly likely to be effective in working with low-achieving, minimally motivated kids.

Training should not end upon the teacher's obtaining a license to teach. Teachers experiencing the frustrations common in working in low-achieving schools should be able to phone or email a hotline staffed by teachers who have successfully taught in those schools.

4. Flexibly group classes.
If I were slow at learning and choosing between a class filled with other slow learners and a class with many hotshots, I'd certainly choose the former. Yet largely because minorities were overrepresented in the slow-learner classes, students, below high school, are usually assigned to classes at random. That causes all students to suffer: It's nearly impossible for a teacher to meet the needs of a class with so wide-ranging needs. We must stop all policies that are created merely to look good racially. Pedagogy must trump politics.

Classes shouldn't be rigidly tracked but what's needed are what I call flex classes. In them, at least for academic subjects, students are grouped by ability and achievement but in which students, especially those of color, are monitored closely to ensure they're not in a too low- (or too high-) level class.

5. Dispel the belief that working hard is "acting white." Berkeley researcher John Ogbu is one of many to report that many black students believe that being studious is "acting white," and therefore unacceptable. "Cool" blacks, both peers and adults, who are studious, must convince students and their parents that studying hard is equally important for students of all races.

6. Encourage an internal locus of control. Of course, what happens to us is not totally under our control. We are greatly affected by the family and community into which we are born. We are affected by the nature of the political and economic system we live under. There is racism. There is reverse racism. There is luck.

Yet successful people believe they can control enough of their life to greatly increase their chances of success. Academics call that internal locus of control. Alas, students from low-income families are more likely to believe that external factors such as luck, God, and their race are key to determining their success.

Moving poor people's locus of control inward is no easy task. Many political leaders, educators, and TV pundits gain popularity by telling their audiences that their failings are largely beyond their control: the capitalist system, the legacy of slavery, institutional racism, etc.

While those may be partially responsible, our mind molders--parents, schools, colleges, church, and media--would be wise to encourage all of us to base our self-esteem, our sense of self-efficacy, on what we ourselves do. The accomplishments of famous people should not be a particular source of pride. Our own efforts, accomplishments, ethics, and kindness should be the primary bases for assessing our self-worth.

7. Chronically disruptive students must be placed in special classes.
If a student, despite the teacher's best efforts with help from the principal, continues to disrupt classmates' opportunity to learn, that child must be moved to a special class taught by someone with special skills in working with such kids. Even if that child does no better in that special class, s/he won't be depriving the other 29 students of their right to an education.

8. Begin career exploration in grade 6.
Finding an exciting yet realistic career can be motivating to many students. And it reduces the problem of many high school and college graduates having no idea what career they want to pursue.

9. Give students a choice: college-prep or career-prep curriculum.
Increasingly, in the name of high standards, high schoolers, even those who read on a sixth grade level and who have far more ability in working with their hands, are being forced to take a college-prep curriculum.

Imagine that you, like millions of parents, have a child who is entering high school but is reading on just a sixth-grade level. Would you want him forced to take a curriculum that required him to derive geometric theorems, balance chemical equations, and write essays on the intricacies of Shakespeare? He'll almost certainly do terribly. Not surprisingly, mandating a one-size-fits-all curriculum causes many to drop out of high school.

Worse, the child won't have had an opportunity to build the basic survival skills reading, writing, critical thinking and math he'll desperate need and doesn't yet have. He could better learn those in a direct-to-career path, for example a health-care or entrepreneurship academy within the high school. But as with ability-grouped classes, for fear of appearing racist, direct-to-career high school paths have largely been eliminated. Indeed one of President Obama's top domestic priorities is "Some college for all."

Today, many colleges are open-admission even to the grossly underprepared. Alas, if a student is one of the 200,000 per year entering so-called 4-year colleges from the bottom 40% of their high school class, their chances of graduating are only 24%, even if given 8 1/2 years! And if they do defy the odds and graduate, it will likely be with a low grade-point average in an easy major such as sociology from a minimally selective college. That will impress few employers at a time when the U.S. has the highest percentage of college graduates in its history at the same time as employers are eliminating as many professional-level positions as possible, through automation, offshoring, or converting jobs to part-time and temp positions. Such graduates are likely to join the ranks of the countless people with a bachelor's degree unable to find better employment than they could have found with just a high school diploma. Meanwhile they have incurred large student debt, boredom, and ongoing assault to self-esteem from being forced to study academic material for which they were unprepared.

I'd rather see the aforementioned child improve his reading, writing, thinking, and mathematical reasoning in high school courses that would prepare him to be an entrepreneur, robotics tech, helicopter pilot, or chef.

A high-quality, not dumping-ground, direct-to-career option should be instituted in high schools, especially those schools serving many students whose academic achievement is below grade-level.

It's ironic that the leaders who most claim to celebrate diversity are the most likely to insist on no diversity in the high school curriculum: they want everyone to take a college-preparatory curriculum to "keep students' options open." Ironically, one-size-fits-all education eliminates excellent options.

10. Require a course in life skills. Before requiring at-risk kids, indeed all kids, to learn quadratic equations, the halide series of chemical elements, and the use of the doppelganger, students should be required to pass a course in life skills: for example, budgeting, interpersonal communication, and the aforementioned sex education and parenting education. To not do so is to be guilty of the very elitism that many educators and politicians decry.

11. Institute a debate (forensics) program in all high schools, including those with low achievement scores. Some evidence and a lot of common sense suggests that a debate program could yield significant benefit.

12. Require colleges to provide full disclosure to prospective students. In their attempt to woo students, especially students of color, colleges and high school counselors, as in the Tuskegee Experiments, often hide the information students need to use to decide whether to enroll:

  • The projected four- and five-year full cost of attendance, including cash financial aid, broken down by family income and assets.
  • Freshman-to-senior average growth in critical thinking, writing, and quantitative reasoning, broken down by high school record.
  • The results of the college's most recent student satisfaction survey
  • Four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, broken down by high school record.
  • The accreditation team's most recent report on the college.
  • The percentage of graduates professionally employed, including average salary, disaggregated by high school record and by major.

13. Head Start Genes. Our intelligence and impulse control are, like most characteristics, likely affected by both our genes and our environment. Yet the government and biotech companies have--for fear of political repercussions--been reluctant to fund research that would identify which gene clusters are responsible for those characteristics. Government should encourage such research so prospective parents could have the option of having their eggs and sperm tested to ensure their baby will be born with genes for good intelligence and impulse control so s/he doesn't start out life with a strike or two against them. We already do this on a crude basis: In in-vitro fertilization, the physician chooses only eggs and sperm that appear normal and robust. If all of a prospective mother's and father's genes are for low intelligence or impulse control, the parents should have the option of having the defective genes in their egg and sperm replaced with normal ones, what I call Head Start genes.

To ensure that the poor has access to this procedure, it would, like other medical procedures, be covered under MediCal and other health programs for the poor. In addition, as with, for example, AIDS education, special outreach would be made in low-income communities to ensure that its residents are aware of the Head Start genes option.

Because low-income people areat the short end of the achievement gap, they would likely benefit far more from Head Start genes than would high achievers.

14. Try bold pilot studies. In addition to implementing the previous ideas, there's need to pilot test new ideas. Examples:

  • For those unable to hold a private-sector job, government should create jobs. A job may be, in addition to a source of income, the most potent teacher, healer, and crime and drug abuse preventer.
  • Pair high school kids with retired small business owners. Have them start a simple business
  • Pair at-risk kids with nursing home residents or hard-to-adopt animal-shelter dogs and cats who otherwise would be euthanized. I've seen hard-bitten teens grow loving when involved with a non-threatening person or animal.
  • Have kids plant vegetable and fruit gardens, cook and eat what they've grown and sell the rest. They'd learn science, cooking, nutrition, and how to run a business. In addition, they might join me in awe of the miracle of growth.
  • Create peer mentor pairs: for example, at-risk sixth graders with at-risk first graders. There's no better way to learn than to teach.
  • Provide free genetic counseling to at-risk prospective parents. That may help them make more fully informed and thus wiser choices.

My hope is that this more thorough (may I say brave) exploration of how to address the achievement gap might encourage a more full-dimensioned discussion than the nation has heretofore had. I believe that without such a discussion, we'll still be wringing our hands about the achievement gap a century from now.


lin said...

What role, if any, does intelligence play in academic achievement? How does parental involvement affect it?

Marty Nemko said...

Intelligence plays a large role in academic achievement. Of course, other factors matter as well, including this little-discussed one: being compliant, "good": willing to learn a lot of material of little interest merely to please the teacher or parent, or to get a good grade.

While it has traditionally been believed that parental involvement is very important, I read a study that said that peer influence is more important. I do think that clever parent involvement helps. That doesn't mean nagging, which often engenders rebellion, but rather the use of praise of good student work, invoking a brief, quiet statement of disappointment in the student when not doing homework (perhaps just a pursing of the lips), and modeling the pleasure of learning--e.g., the parent sharing at dinner what s/he learned from having read something.