Achievement Gap Politics


The author of the following article is a teacher who is also a graduate of a prominent school of education. We have agreed to withhold the author's name in light of the plausible prospect that revealing it would damage this high school teacher's professional career. The article is based on a public lecture the author presented to students interested in issues of campus free speech. 

I often tell my high school students that I nearly got kicked out of the ed school here. They are duly impressed. After all, they think, college requires much more work than high school, so getting kicked out of college must require some really bodaciously bad actions that dwarf the piddling trifles that get you kicked out of high school, and that’s information they want to have. I tell them that they can google me, read up, and ask any questions after they’ve done their due diligence. 

The first student to do so, a freshman named Alex, came up to me in class and said, "Hey, I read that article about you." 

"You did? What did you think?" 

He hesitated. "It was weird. I couldn't figure out what it was you did wrong." 

I laughed. In fact, that’s why many people wonder if there was some other problem—maybe I had really bad body odor, or maybe I just smelled of booze all the time, even if they couldn’t catch me drunk. Maybe I dropped to the ground in spasms and started speaking in tongues, or read the sports page to my cat. There had to be some reason other than what was reported, because what was reported just didn’t make sense. 

So what I'm wondering is, does anyone feel the same way Alex did? [At this point I pause and confirm that several people share that confusion.] 

Okay, so I'll give the background needed to answer Alex's question. 

But be warned that what I'm about to explain is something that is a monstrously big free speech red zone in and of itself. If I had come here to talk about this, there'd be picketers and I'd be shouted down. So please believe me: I am not trying to advocate for one view here, but rather describe the situation as objectively as I can to give you a better understanding of why I had trouble, and why people who know about the larger context were so interested in my story. 

First, you have to understand that educational policy is consumed by the achievement gap, which is the disparity between groups of students on most educational measures, particularly the groups of race and socio-economic income—and, if I'm going to be honest, it's race that generates the most intensity. I don't just mean that this is the number one priority. It's the only priority. The achievement gap pervades every corner of American educational policy discussion. Nothing else matters. No Child Left Behind was entirely about the achievement gap and measuring schools to see if they'd closed it. Obama's Race to the Top is just another take on the achievement gap—again, focusing on testing and this time holding teachers responsible if they can't get low-performing students to improve. 

In the public domain, you'll hear two contrasting views about the achievement gap, its cause and solution. The first is the progressive view, the one associated with "progressive education," which holds that social injustice, institutionalized racism, white prejudice, and other societal ills cause the achievement gap.  Progressives want to fix the achievement gap by moving underachieving students closer to high-achieving students whenever possible, arguing that tracking and sorting are evils that create underachieving “ghettos” that perpetuate, or even cause, the gap. In schools with a majority minority population of underachievers (i.e., inner city urban schools or charter schools specifically created for these populations), progressives push for community involvement, encouraging teachers to support their students in every aspect of life and seek to make the curriculum "relevant." 

So progressives push for underachievers to spend more time with achievers who will model desirable behavior. When achievers aren't available, progressives seek to create the value system within the child and the community by demonstrating their involvement and cultural acceptance. This is incredibly oversimplified; I'm just trying to give you a general sense. Notice, though, that a large part of the progressive view involves changing the students' values with sympathetic teachers who understand how to develop "accessible" curriculum for students who aren’t performing at grade level. 

Those who have this progressive view are also generally well left of center. More importantly for purposes of this discussion, teacher education programs do not readily tolerate any deviance from the progressive view. 

The second view, what I'll call the conservative view of the achievement gap, also focuses on student values. But instead of encouraging teachers to respect the student's culture, conservatives say that parents and teachers of low-performing students are the cause of the gap, by failing to give the students the correct cultural values. Hard work, family values, commitment to the importance of education, and "no excuses," to quote the Thernstroms, who are major proponents of the conservative view, will close the achievement gap. The conservatives believe that higher standards are the order of the day, and that everyone can achieve if they just work hard. Conservatives hold ed schools in extremely low esteem, and feel that the progressive push to “understand” students and teach simplified (as they see it) curriculum contributes to the problem. The conservative view is held by most politicians of any ideology. Both NCLB and Race to the Top are based on this viewpoint—which comes along with a hefty dose of blame for the teachers, the ed schools that produce them, and the unions that represent them. 

To illustrate the difference between conservative and progressive viewpoints on the achievement gap, consider how each discusses Asians. (Note: I am well aware that "Asian" is a ridiculously large population about which you can't generalize. I'm just telling you the conversation.) Those with a progressive view of education almost never mention Asians. I often joke that in ed school, you only read about white boys in special ed class, white girls in the eating disorders unit, and Asians make a brief cameo in the ESL course. The conservatives, however, never miss an opportunity to mention Asians who, in their view, are the ideal culture, or the "model minority"—they value education and they work hard. 

If all you watched were the shout shows, you'd never know there was another way of assessing the achievement gap. And in fact, while progressives and conservatives have many adherents and could even be described as "groups," those holding the third view don’t get together much. They don’t hold meetings, they don’t have organizations, and in general, they avoid the field of educational policy. People holding this third view—again, not a group—don’t talk much in public. Let's call this third view the Voldemort View: the View That Must Not Be Named. 

To introduce you to the Voldemort View, here's an exchange between Steven Pinker, one of the foremost cognitive scientists (and not, I hasten to observe, way out there on the Voldemort ledge), and Malcolm Gladwell, a trendy writer whose writing on education and achievement pleases both conservatives and progressives and who, in the interests of full disclosure, I must tell you I can't stand. 

Pinker reviewed Gladwell's newest book for the New York Times. After patting Gladwell on the head like a cute little puppy for his charming essays, Pinker annihilates Gladwell's writings on achievement and intellectual ability, saying, 

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. ... Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarterback’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or ...that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements. 

Gladwell replied loftily in his blog, "It is always a pleasure to be reviewed by someone as accomplished as Stephen Pinker, even if he is unhappy ... with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism." 

Pinker shot back, "What Malcolm Gladwell calls a 'lonely ice floe' is what psychologists call 'the mainstream.'" (pause while I snorfle appreciatively) 

What, no one gets the joke?  Well, it loses something in the translation, but let me explain. 

Did you notice that neither progressives nor conservatives ever mention cognitive ability in their diagnosis? Ask either group about this omission, and they will vigorously assure you that it has no relationship to the achievement gap—but they’ll also look at you with narrowed eyes, wondering why on earth you’re bringing up cognitive ability in the first place. What on earth does cognitive ability have to do with education? You aren't one of those people out there on the ice floe, are you? 

And that's why I laugh at the Pinker/Gladwell exchange, because when Gladwell tried that line on Pinker, Pinker didn't backpedal or equivocate, but rather told Gladwell, in public—in the New York Times, even!—that he was a dilettante without a clue. To Pinker and other experts, Gladwell and the intelligentsia (progressive and conservative both) are simply ignorant about the impact that cognitive differences have on academic outcomes and indeed many major life measures—data that have been well-established and beyond scientific dispute (although the causes and solutions are a long way from settled). 

And so, the Voldemort View: academic achievement is primarily explained by cognitive ability, and therefore the achievement gap is also most likely caused in large part by differences in cognitive ability. People with this view don’t promote solutions, primarily because in order to even start thinking about solutions one has to be able to discuss the possible cause and mentioning this cause is politically unacceptable. People who think it likely that the achievement gap is primarily cognitive don't usually risk mentioning it in public because it's a career destroyer. Please do not infer any other opinions about those with a Voldemort View, because I promise you, most of what you're likely to assume is simply wrong. 

You might be wondering whether I’m a conservative or a Voldemort. Here’s the really funny part—it doesn’t matter. I would have run into trouble at ed school regardless. The real problem wasn’t conservative vs. Voldemort—although I sense most ed schools would, if forced, say they preferred a conservative. The real problem is that elite ed schools don't want either type to darken their doors. 

Why? I think ed schools see the public rejection of affirmative action, its embrace of welfare reform and crackdowns on illegal immigrants, and all the other rollbacks of the liberal agenda as profoundly wrong and evil acts. They see education as a means of rectifying the injustices committed by an ignorant society, with themselves as one of the last bastions of protection for under-represented minorities. 

Ed schools don’t get much respect within the university, and even less in the political arena. But they are the gatekeepers of elite credentials within the education community. These credentials don’t matter so much for teaching jobs per se, but do matter for educational policy jobs and doctoral program applications that come after teachers "do their two" in public schools and move on to jobs in which they can influence policy.

It’s much easier to move from teaching to an education think tank or a doctoral program if you’ve got a degree and credential from, say, Columbia Teacher’s College than if your degree has the local state diploma mill stamp. Elite ed schools use the one area where they reign supreme to withhold legitimacy from dissenters. 

Someone who provided essential support during my troubles told me a funny story. He was posting information about me on Facebook, and up popped an ad for USC's online Masters of Arts in Teaching program. On impulse, he called the recruiter to see if they had any sort of ideological requirements and (quoting from his note) "asked him if USC enforces belief in specific values like 'equity' or that 'everyone can learn,' and [the recruiter] assured me that one of the admission essays is precisely on this point and that people with unsuitable views are weeded out!" 

And so when the head of my ed school became aware that I already had opinions about educational policy, and that these views weren’t progressive, no further information was needed. Anyone who knew enough to disagree with progressive education was either a conservative or a Voldemort. This professor wasn't a fragile flower who couldn't tolerate disagreement, and wasn’t even slightly concerned that I would be a terrible teacher. What was imperative to the head of my ed school was that someone with my views could not be given the imprimatur of this university.  I should not be able to wear the tee-shirt with the school’s logo on it. I should not be able to apply for a government policy job with a resume mentioning I got my M.Ed. here. I’m having an op-ed piece published sometime soon, and the bottom caption is going to say I got my teaching credential from this school and that, too, is something that should not have happened. The head of the ed school will read that caption with gritted teeth and white knuckles but remember, as small consolation, that every effort was made to prevent this dire and horrible outcome. 

I knew—or thought I knew—what I was getting into. I understood the politics. I understood that progressives controlled ed schools, and I was under no illusion that I'd have anything approaching academic freedom. 

What I didn't understand until that point, however, was how impermeable the barrier was. I figured that a few had gotten in before, they'd be chagrined that one other had slipped in, and oh well. Instead, the blockade had never been breached—or if it had, the other intruders had taken the hint and left. I had underestimated both their determination and their prior success at keeping non-progressives out, and how one seemingly minor comment had set off klaxons and red lights throughout the education complex. 

Many people think this is entirely reasonable behavior for a private university. I’ll merely observe that the universities themselves don’t think so, and adamantly deny that the behavior exists. Moreover, the federal government provides loan forgiveness to teachers who meet certain categories, and the ed schools that benefit most from loan forgiveness are the elite schools who charge a small fortune. Should ed schools impose an ideological litmus test when their income is reliant on federal loan forgiveness?  I would argue no. In any case, I think the associated university should openly acknowledge the ideological demands that ed schools—which are usually university cash cows—impose on their applicants. 

So to answer Alex's question, this is what I did that was wrong: I revealed that I probably didn’t view the achievement gap through the progressive lens. This ed school, like all elite ed schools, wants neither conservatives nor Voldemorts to benefit from its elite status.  No ed school can publicly admit to the ideological requirements, but thanks to state credentialing rules, an ed school can withhold a credential for any reason at all. Thus, the program tried to get rid of me with laughably trivial reasons—reasons that would nonetheless ordinarily work, except I fought back. That brought their efforts to light, and left the uninitiated scratching their heads at the absurdly minor charges that the school tried to use. 

Now, you can accept my interpretation of what happened or not. But certainly many people do believe ed schools are engaging in this behavior, and that is the subtext of the articles about my problems. This is why my story got attention. What happened to me is something that the elite ed schools have long been suspected of doing, and that is in direct violation of every known principle of academic freedom—which thus embarrasses not only their own program, but the universities they operate within. 

Does that clarify anything? (Emphatic nods). Phew. Consider yourself initiated and stop scratching your heads. Now let's go onto something easy like the free speech implications of my case.  

Image: "Leaf in an Ice Floe" by Ingrid Taylar // CC BY-SA

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