Posted on May 24, 2010

Achievement Gap Politics

Anonymous, National Association of Scholars, May 7, 2010

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. {snip}

{snip} I tell them [my high-school students] 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.”

{snip} 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. {snip}

{snip} 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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.


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 .&nsbp;. . 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)


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. {snip}


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. {snip}

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. {snip}


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. {snip} 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. {snip}

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. {snip}


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.