In a Fall 2011 article in National Affairs, Frederick Hess argued that “The notion of closing achievement gaps has become synonymous with education reform.” But educational results as well as sociological studies have shown that K‒12 education can be expected to have only limited success in closing achievement gaps. The better objective for K‒12 schooling is to provide both disadvantaged and advantaged students with a rigorous academic curriculum that provides equal opportunity for all to become well-educated. That is what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seek to engender.
Education historian Diane Ravitch notes that in 1893, the nation’s first blue-ribbon school study commission endorsed the democratic idea that the then-nascent public high schools should provide a rigorous academic education for all students who sought it, not just for the elite going on to college. The commission concluded that high school graduates with well-trained minds, well furnished with knowledge, would be well prepared for many potential paths in life. The expected role of the public schools was to make social equality a reality, to give each individual an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream by developing his mental powers to the full extent of his ability and interest.
In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) became the educational vehicle for the civil rights movement and Great Society with the aim of narrowing achievement gaps by providing every child with a fair and equal opportunity to achieve an exceptional education. The federal government sought to realize that aim primarily by throwing money and regulations (allocating resources, defining the disadvantaged, restructuring programs) at the public school system. The Blob contributed Dewey-style progressive education and “critical pedagogical theory,” a Marxian approach to social justice that “identifies economic inequities caused by capitalism as the primary reason for the existence of achievement gaps.”
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-Term Trend Assessments 2012 found that achievement gaps for 17-year-old black and Hispanic students have not improved since the early 1970s. While such gaps declined for 9- and 13-year olds until the mid- to late-1980s, there have not been significant reductions since. Other flawed educational practices also contributed to the persistence of achievement gaps, as I explained previously in Our Literacy Problem and Our Mathematics Problem.
Moreover, hovering over public education since the 1960s have been sociological studies which maintain that school systems can produce only limited results in closing achievement gaps that arise from family, cultural, and social circumstances. Hess points to a famous 1966 study by sociologist James Coleman:
The Coleman report concluded that parents’ involvement in their children’s lives had a vastly greater effect on achievement and eventual success than schooling did. Coleman’s findings were reinforced in the 1970s by sociologist Christopher Jencks and a team at Harvard, who conducted an extensive re-analysis of the data and concluded that the influence of schooling was “marginal.” Children, they argued, were affected far more by “what happens at home [and also perhaps] by what happens in the streets and by what they see on television.” The outcomes of schooling, Jencks and his team reported, depended almost entirely on “the characteristics of the entering children.”
In reacting to the decline in public education between 1965 and 1983, A Nation at Risk reiterated the commitment to equal educational opportunity:
All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.
Hess notes that:
By the end of the 1990s, frustrated policymakers and educational reformers on both the left and the right conceded that a child’s material, family, and community circumstances surely mattered, but decided to reject outright the notion that zip codes should determine academic success….However, a sensible impulse became badly distorted. The result was the No Child Left Behind Act, to which much of today’s achievement-gap mania can be traced.
Hess adds and concludes:
In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, “It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students….Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one.”…
The sad truth…is that the whole achievement-gap enterprise has been bad for schooling, bad for most children, and bad for the nation….
A 2012 Brookings paper addresses the CCSS and the achievement gap:
If states adopt the new assessments that measure students’ mastery of the Common Core literacy standards, the results will show a much larger literacy gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students than revealed by current achievement tests. The more demanding Common Core standards in literacy, based on reading comprehension, conceptual knowledge, and vocabulary as well as accurate and fluent reading, combined with accurate assessments of these skills, will reveal how far disadvantaged children lag behind on these more advanced literacy skills. This finding will ratchet up pressure on states and local school systems to oppose accurate assessments and may reduce the number of states that agree to use the new assessments. Similarly, the light shed on education outcomes may convince states that adopt the new assessments to abandon their use once they see how their students’ poor performance inflames public opinion….
Such a public reaction to the CCSS results would be misplaced. More recent sociological studies confirm Coleman’s and Jencks’s earlier findings. Such new studies recognize that better-educated, higher-income, married parents devote greater and more effective time and effort to raising and educating their children from an early age than do less-educated, low-income, often-single parents.
A February 2013 presentation—The Skills Problem—by Chicago economist James Heckman, which summarized recent research, argued that the skill gaps of disadvantaged children from poor family environments at the end of high school “are basically the same gaps that were there when they entered Kindergarten.” The New York Times commented that:
Children of mothers who had graduated from college scored much higher at age 3 than those whose mothers had dropped out of high school, proof of the advantage for young children of living in rich, stimulating environments.
More surprising is that the difference in cognitive performance was just as big at age 18 as it had been at age 3. …“School neither increases nor reduces it.”
A study by Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon of the “income achievement gap”—between children from high- versus low-income families—which he reported in May 2013, found that:
The income achievement gap is already large when children enter kindergarten, and it does not grow significantly as they progress through school….The achievement gap changes little during the K‒12 years….The fact that the income achievement gap…does not grow substantially during the school years …suggests that the primary cause of the gap is not unequal school quality….In fact…schools may actually narrow academic achievement gaps, rather than widen them….
U. S. schools have historically been thought of as the great equalizer—the social institution best suited to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to learn, develop, and thrive. It is unrealistic, however, to think that school-based strategies alone will eliminate today’s stark disparities in academic success….Our schools cannot be expected to solve this problem on their own, but they must be part of the solution.
E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge—which the CCSS emphasize. Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute concurs and summarizes Hirsh’s approach:
Hirsch is and always has been a liberal Democrat. Far from being elitist, he insists, cultural literacy is the path to educational equality and full citizenship for the nation’s minority groups. “Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children,” Hirsch writes, and “the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.
Indeed, Hirsch himself notes that:
The best schools and teachers have already taken some of the steps that I’ve advocated. After James S. Coleman and his colleagues completed Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), he became distressed that the only lesson people took from his great work was that American schools of the 1960s made far less difference to educational outcomes than family and economic status did. There was another finding at least as important: exceptionally good schools, though better for all students, were especially valuable for disadvantaged ones. Inferior schools, by contrast, harmed disadvantaged students much more than they harmed advantaged ones….
The CCSS are an attempt to create curricula and schools that are better for all students.
The Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have adopted the CCSS. The key question is whether they will vector the CCSS toward closing achievement gaps or raising the performance of all. In a lecture at Harvard in 2010, Secretary Duncan said:
Education is…the civil rights issue of our generation….The Education Department’s office for civil rights is finding that too many black students and English language learners don’t have the access to a challenging curriculum that prepares them for success in life….Black students earn college degrees at about half the rate of white students. Hispanic numbers are even less. To close the achievement gap, we must get serious about closing the opportunity gap….
We need to make education our national mission…Education reform is a daily fight for social justice. Please join us in that fight.
Ironically, the Obama administration should take greater cognizance of John Rawls’s wisdom:
The difference principle…does not require society to try to even out handicaps as if all were expected to compete on a fair basis in the same race. But the difference principle would allocate resources in education, say, so as to improve the long-term expectation of the least favored. If this end is attained by giving more attention to the better endowed, it is permissible; otherwise not.
The CCSS should be implemented—and student assessments should be judged—based on the long-standing American ideal of providing equal opportunity, not seeking to eliminate the achievement gap to provide social justice. Cultural and social reform—of the mores and folkways that destroyed the American family from the 1960s onward—is the needed solution to potentially improving the prospects of the disadvantaged.
The next article will examine the role of states and local school districts in selecting instructional materials aligned to the CCSS.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
 George K. Cunningham, University of North Carolina Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers? Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, 2008, 2, 9. Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary Education Teachers Can Do (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 108−10.
 Top Stories in NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessments 2012, 27 June 2013. Eric W. Robelen, “Achievement Gap Narrows on Long-Term NAEP,” Education Week, 27 June 2013. Eric W. Robelen, “NAEP Report: A Closer Look at Trends in the Achievement Gap,” Education Week, 28 June 2013.
 Hess, “Our Achievement-Gap Mania.”
 National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, U. S. Department of Education, 26 April 1983.
 Hess, “Our Achievement-Gap Mania.”
 Ron Haskins, Richard Murnane, Isabel V. Sawhill, and Catherine Snow, Can Academic Standards Boost Literacy and Close the Achievement Gap? Brookings Institution, 2 October 2012.
 “The Skills Problem: Professor James Heckman’s Presentation to the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce,” First Five Nebraska, 7 February 2013.