Policymakers and practitioners can do only so much to solve any problem without a clear, unbiased view of the underlying causes. Educators today have failed to improve student achievement largely because we use an inadequate conceptual framework to understand poor academic performance.
The prevailing national lens for interpreting student progress or lack of it is the achievement gap. Student performance levels are typically disaggregated by racial and economic categories, and then disparities are identified within those categories—black versus white, rich versus poor, etc.
For the past half century, the mission statement of virtually every education reform organization has included earnest language around closing the achievement gap. In 2010, former US Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who served in a Republican administration, cowrote a book titled The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time. Nearly a decade later, former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., who served in a Democratic administration, wrote an essay titled “Education Remains the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time.” Left and right, policymakers and educators agree that the achievement gap is the most important civil rights issue we face.
Unfortunately, our five-decade obsession with closing achievement gaps has yielded little progress. Four leading education researchers including Stanford professors Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson published a study in 2019 concluding that “the opportunity gap—that is, the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement—has not grown over the past 50 years. But neither has it closed. Instead, the gap between the haves and have-nots has persisted.”
The same basic conclusion holds true for race. As Figure 1 shows, after 50 years, the achievement gap between white and black students has barely narrowed.
Hanushek explains the challenge we face: “After nearly a half century of supposed progress in race relations within the United States, the modest improvements in achievement gaps since 1965 can only be called a national embarrassment.”
How do explain this lack of success? Among other reasons, the achievement gap is a poor tool for understanding student failure or promoting student achievement. It falls flat in three important ways.
First, our obsession with the achievement gap masks a deeper challenge—notably our collective failure to teach literacy and build verbal proficiency across all races and classes. Consider that in 2019, before Covid-19 lockdowns and learning declines, only one-third of all eighth-grade students scored “proficient” on the National Assessment of Progress in reading. And in no year since the “Nation’s Report Card” was first administered in 1992 has a majority of white students been reading at grade level. The sad irony is that closing the black-white achievement gap would guarantee only educational mediocrity for all students.
Second, our preoccupation with closing racial and economic achievement gaps ushered in a kind of blinkered, reductive thinking that crowds out educators’ ability to identify creative solutions across demographic categories. Educators bombarded by statistics on the racial achievement gap are, unsurprisingly, inclined to believe that underachievement is rooted in racism. A deeper look would shatter this notion that systematic racism is the sole or even primary cause of low proficiency rates among black and Hispanic Americans.
In 1966, sociologist James Coleman published a landmark 700-page study of educational opportunity known as the Coleman Report, which drew on data from more than 645,000 students and teachers in 4,000 US public schools. Among its most controversial findings was that family background—not schools, funding, religion or race—was the only characteristic with a consistent causal relationship to academic performance. The report summarized:
One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.
Many studies analyzing student characteristics show the importance of family structure over other factors, including race. But most educators and policymakers ignore these data, leaving them more likely to misdiagnose why kids are not succeeding and less likely to pursue creative solutions that would better equip the rising generation to succeed in school.
Third, many of the remedies that arise from our single-minded focus on racial achievement gaps yield counterproductive results. For example, many educators who are led to believe that racism is the primary cause of student underachievement are eager to participate in diversity and equity training rooted in critical race theory or so-called anti-racist ideology. But research suggests such training has a downside. University of London researcher Eric Kaufmann has found that reading even a brief passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son”—which paints America as a nation built on historical and present-day systems of racial oppression—“was enough to reduce black respondents’ sense of control over their lives.” And this lack of control can easily extend far beyond the classroom.
Even talking about the achievement gap can have adverse consequences for children. When participants in a study conducted by University of Southern California researcher David Quinn were randomly assigned to view a TV news story about the differential achievement of black and white learners, Quinn found that content emphasizing the gap caused participants to underestimate the capabilities of black students. Rather than boost minority outcomes, the focus on “gaps” reinforced notions of black inferiority and white superiority.
In short, the achievement gap has consistently proved a poor conceptual underpinning for educators seeking to improve student outcomes. We need a better framework.
Fortunately, there is an alternative approach. Instead of our current strategy grounded in race- and class-based gaps, I propose a strategy I call “Distance to 100.” This framework recognizes that every educator’s ultimate goal is to prepare all students for success. Instead of focusing on racial differences, we should strive to help 100 percent of students test at grade level in every subject.
A “Distance to 100” approach would emphasize the gap between current performance levels and 100 percent proficiency for all students. Analyses of demographic subgroups would not pit one group against another, as do current analyses based on the racial and economic achievement gaps. Instead, they would compare each group to 100 percent proficiency.
Why is “Distance to 100” a better option? It would enable educators to identify the root causes of poor student achievement and craft solutions that actually address these challenges now and in the future.
For example, millennials of all races are much more likely to flourish financially if they follow what is often referred to as the “success sequence”—getting at least a high school degree, working full-time and marrying, in that order, before having children. Indeed, according to a 2017 study by the American Enterprise Institute, 97 percent of millennials who follow that sequence are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years, ages 28–34. This path to young adulthood is also among the most likely to lead to economic success and stronger family formation for the rising generation.
Building on what we know from the Coleman study and other research on the critical relationship between stable families and positive academic results, why wouldn’t we make teaching the success sequence in middle and high school part of an expanded solution set to improve academic and life outcomes?
The charter schools I run in New York City teach the success sequence in a descriptive rather than prescriptive fashion, describing it as one of several pathways with varying rewards and consequences. This may not be the best approach for every school or child. But it demonstrates what can be done—an alternative to the usual suspect focus on race and class that achievement-gap thinking often entails.
Educators no longer blinded by demographic achievement gaps would quickly discover that roughly equal numbers of black, white and Hispanic students are reading below grade level nationally. (See Figure 2.) This matters because teachers work with individuals, not racial or economic groups.
Freed from the old, tired rhetoric about achievement gaps, we might find a common cause for poor reading performance among all American students, regardless of race or class.
For decades, education experts from E. D. Hirsch to Dan Willingham to Natalie Wexler have made the case that our failure to teach reading and build background knowledge with content-rich curricula has had a devastating impact on all of America’s children. Wexler outlines the dilemma well in her book, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It:
As far back as 1977, early-elementary teachers spent more than twice as much time on reading as on science and social studies combined. But since 2001, when the federal No Child Left Behind legislation made standardized reading and math scores the yardstick for measuring progress, the time devoted to both subjects has only grown. In turn, the amount of time spent on social studies and science has plummeted—especially in schools where test scores are low.
The lesson: schools must go beyond reading instruction, focusing more intently on content-rich subjects like history, science and the arts to grow vocabulary and introduce children to the broader world of learning. As E. D. Hirsch has noted: “When children are offered coherent, cumulative knowledge from preschool on, reading proficiency is the result.”
A “Distance to 100” approach would also carve out space for new and creative kinds of data reporting. How we picture information shapes our thoughts, and we need new, more accurate images to help us diagnose why so many students are having trouble in school. Rather than—or at least in addition to—the normal representations of proficiency by race, class and gender, researchers must find ways to depict individual students’ performance, including with geographic distributions, multivariate analyses and scatterplot analyses.
Scatterplot analyses, for example, may reveal that there are many kids from each racial and ethnic background in the top and bottom tiers of student performance. Could it be that universal factors like the number of hours spent studying or reading is the common denominator for the top-tier group and thus the primary intervention to be pursued for lower-performing students?
Other analyses might reveal that geography—a geographically concentrated lack of access to rich curricula or high-quality schools—rather than race is at the root of some students’ poor performance. If education officials can identify locations with entrenched underperformance, they may be compelled to expand school options and work to empower every family to find the right place for their child.
Ultimately, a “Distance to 100” approach is premised on the notion that a new, creative understanding of data and the representation of data will help educators unearth opportunities to improve student achievement. Such presentations would begin to confront the narrative that group identity defines performance and instead force us to look for factors that transcend race, gender and class.
As Hanushek and his colleagues state in their 2019 paper, “The stubborn endurance of achievement inequalities suggests the need to reconsider policies and practices aimed at shrinking the gap. Although policymakers have repeatedly tried to break the link between students’ learning and their socioeconomic background, these interventions thus far have been unable to dent the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement. Perhaps it is time to consider alternatives.”
“Distance to 100” for every child can be that empowering alternative.