The Gap

Recently, Maryland released its 2019 state PARCC scores.  I read an article about the scores in the Baltimore Sun.  The pattern of scores was the same as usual, some up, some down. Baltimore City was in last place, as usual.  The Sun helpfully noted that this was probably due to high levels of poverty in Baltimore.  Then the article noted that there was a serious statewide gap between African American and White students, followed by the usual shocked but resolute statements about closing the gap from local superintendents.

Some of the superintendents said that in order to combat the gap, they were going to take a careful look at the curriculum.  There is nothing wrong with looking at curriculum.  All students should receive the best curriculum we can provide them.  However, as a means of reducing the gap, changing the curriculum is not likely to make much difference.

First, there is plentiful evidence from rigorous studies showing that changing from one curriculum to another, or one textbook to another, or one set of standards to another, makes little difference in student achievement.  Some curricula have more interesting or up to date content than others. Some meet currently popular standards better than others. But actual meaningful increases in achievement compared to a control group using the old curriculum?  This hardly ever happens. We once examined all of the textbooks rated “green” (the top ranking on EdReports, which reviews textbooks for alignment with college- and career-ready standards). Out of dozens of reading and math texts with this top rating,  two had small positive impacts on learning, compared to control groups.  In contrast, we have found more than 100 reading and math programs that are not textbooks or curricula that have been found to significantly increase student achievement more than control groups using current methods (see www.evidenceforessa.org).

But remember that at the moment, I am talking about reducing gaps, not increasing achievement overall.  I am unaware of any curriculum, textbook, or set of standards that is proven to reduce gaps. Why should they?  By definition, a curriculum or set of standards is for all students.  In rare cases when a curriculum does improve achievement overall, there is little reason to expect it to increase performance for one specific group or another.

The way to actually reduce gaps is to provide something extremely effective for struggling students. For example, the Sun article on the PARCC scores highlighted Lakeland Elementary/Middle, a Baltimore City school that gained 20 points on PARCC since 2015. How did they do it? The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) sent groups of undergraduate education majors to Lakeland to provide tutoring and mentoring.  The Lakeland kids were very excited and apparently learned a lot. I can’t provide rigorous evidence for the UMBC program, but there is quite a lot of evidence for similar programs, in which capable and motivated tutors without teaching certificates work with small groups of students in reading or math.

Tutoring programs and other initiatives that focus on the specific kids who are struggling have an obvious link to reducing gaps, because they go straight to where the problem is rather than doing something less targeted and less intensive.

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Serious gap-reduction approaches can be used with any curriculum or set of standards. Districts focused on standards-based reform may also provide tutoring or other proven gap-reduction approaches along with new textbooks to students who need them.  The combination can be powerful. But the tutoring would most likely have worked with the old curriculum, too.

If all struggling students received programs effective enough to bring all of them to current national averages, the U.S. would be the highest-performing national school system in the world.  Social problems due to inequality, frustration, and inadequate skills would disappear. Schools would be happier places for kids and teachers alike.

The gap is a problem we can solve, if we decide to do so.  Given the stakes involved for our economy, society, and future, how could we not?

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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