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How Can the Achievement Gap Be Closed? A Freakonomics Quorum

The black-white gap in U.S. education is an issue that continues to occupy the efforts of a great many scholars. Roland Fryer and Steve Levitt have poked at the issue repeatedly; a recent study by Spyros Konstantopoulos looked at class size as a possible culprit, to little avail.

We gathered a group of people with wisdom and experience in this area — Caroline Hoxby, Daniel Hurley, Richard J. Murnane, and Andrew Rotherham — and asked them the following question:

How can the U.S. black-white achievement gap be closed?

Here are their responses:

Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution:

There is no “silver bullet” for closing the achievement gap, and any person who tells you differently is speaking from something more like religious conviction than evidence. That being said, I have picked out a few things which would almost certainly help close the gap. I’ve picked out policies that are practicable and could be implemented fairly quickly.

The first suggestion may seem pointy-headed but it’s the most important: All major interventions in education should be evaluated using scientific methods — experimental methods, if at all possible.

Most interventions in education (class size reductions, pre-kindergarten programs, classroom technology, paying students for performance, drop-out prevention) are based not on evidence that they work, but rather on the “cardiac test” (e.g., “we just know in our heart that this is right”). Moreover, the interventions are not scientifically evaluated, sometimes because advocates oppose evaluation, but more often because no one bothers to set up pilot, randomization, or baseline data in the first place.

Thus, even though almost every popular intervention has been tried many times in American schools and is probably being started by some district today, we know very little about what works. If we did nothing other than analyze the effect of every intervention that is going to be tried, we would be far more likely to close the achievement gap.

One thing we have learned definitively in recent years is that teachers differ in their ability to raise students’ achievement. Research shows that your child’s learning will be very different at the end of the school year if he has the best teacher in his grade rather than the worst teacher. Importantly, it is not a master’s degree, a teaching certificate, or experience that makes a teacher the best or the worst. The data show that some teachers are simply better at raising achievement and that their superior talents are not revealed by credentials that would show up on a resume. Since we can identify the better teachers ex post but not necessarily when they are hired, it makes sense to reward teachers based on their students’ learning gains.

If states introduced bonuses for teachers who raised achievement substantially and gave bigger bonuses to teachers who raised disadvantaged students’ achievement, considerable progress might be made in closing the achievement gap. Such a policy would not only give teachers strong incentives to improve their teaching, but it would also draw talented people into the teaching profession and keep them there.

In a recent study of New York City charter schools, I compared students who were admitted to the charter schools via random admissions lotteries to students who applied but were “lotteried out.” The beauty of randomization is that the lotteried-in and lotteried-out students were the same — not just in background and prior achievement — but also in motivation. The overall result was that New York City charter school students outperformed the lotteried-out students in math and reading, but not all charter schools had identical success.

One factor that was found to correlate with a charter school’s success was a longer school year (210 days, say, as opposed to 180 days) and day (9 hours, say, as opposed to 5.5). Such policies may hold great promise for schools that serve disadvantaged students, and (unlike the policies I mentioned above) have not been tried much in the past. I would like to see large-scale demonstrations of such policies with scientific evaluations so that we’ll know whether they work or not. Even if the typical public school might hesitate to implement such policies, there are many charter schools in the U.S. that would be glad to try them, with a suitable increase in their budgets.

Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities:

Closing the achievement gap in the United States will require a confluence of strategies and an unprecedented level of energy and focus, both of which are key to maintaining American prosperity in an increasingly Darwinian global economy. Here are four efforts that could pave the way:

Improve Alignment. Entry into postsecondary education needs to be a natural extension from high school graduation. Given the unexceptional retention rates of college students, it’s evident that college readiness needs to be improved. The best way to do this is by increasing the rigor of the high school experience, not by watering down college curriculum standards. Evidence suggests completing a rigorous high school core course of study is the number one determinant of students’ entry into and success in college — even if the grades earned in the tougher classes are mediocre. Efforts to improve alignment throughout the states are being ushered on many fronts, including by Achieve, Inc. and the American Diploma Project, an endeavor being led by many of our nation’s governors to raise academic standards and achievements so that all students graduate prepared for college and work.

Raise Expectations. Many high schools in impoverished communities across America are saddled with a curse of low expectations that impedes the achievement of several populations, including those from very rural areas and poor urban districts. A primary reason students withdraw from high school is not for a lack of ability, but a lack of engagement, challenge, and low expectations that have been set. The story of the Los Angeles Unified School District — in which a mostly minority student body successfully lobbied the district’s school board to raise curriculum standards to those of nearby, but more affluent districts — serves as a compelling example of the power of setting the high expectations yearned for by our youth. Let’s raise the bar and ensure that the high school experience is a cause worthy of the full dedication of America’s next generation.

Increase Aspirations. Closing the achievement gap will involve part public policy, part social marketing. Current socio-economic and demographic trends unabated, the U.S. is at great risk of losing its competitiveness if we fail to increase the educational attainment levels of populations with low college participation and success rates, such as those from low-income households, first-generation college students, minority (especially Hispanic) students, and returning adults. We need to more fully tap the aspirations of our youth and collectively seek to engender a more robust college-going culture in America. A campaign espousing the value and need for all citizens to obtain some type of postsecondary credential will require utilizing every medium at our disposal, from family conversations to state-wide public awareness efforts.

Enhance Visibility. Finally, the challenges and opportunities associated with closing the achievement gap demand much greater visibility in the American consciousness. A Sputnik-like sense of urgency is needed to make K-16 education a public policy priority at the federal, state, and local levels. There are mountains of compelling data that portend a bleak future if our educational success rates are not improved. The nation is currently witness to a robust and historical campaign for the presidency, yet the issue of education reform at all levels remains undiscussed by the major contenders.

One national public awareness campaign currently underway is Ed in ’08, a non-partisan initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that seeks to elevate public awareness about education, and to make it a priority of our presidential contenders and the American people. It’s a good start, and worth rallying around. It is, after all, our very own future prosperity that’s at stake.

Richard J. Murnane, professor of education and society at Harvard:

Within the lifetimes of today’s teenagers, two of every five American workers will be black or brown, and the nation’s economic and social future will depend critically on their skills. Projecting the status quo forward produces a frightening picture. One out of every three students of color fails to obtain a high school diploma. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress Grade 8 reading exam, 46 percent of black public school students and 43 percent of Hispanic students scored “below basic.” Only 12 percent and 14 percent of these groups scored proficient or advanced.

Understanding the reasons why so many black and brown Americans enter adulthood with extremely weak skills and low educational attainments is central to figuring out how to change the future. Poverty and inadequate family resources are a key piece of the problem. One in four children of color lives in poverty. Two of three black children and one of three Hispanic children live in a single-parent family. The low resource levels available to support these children’s initial development means that most come to school not ready to learn.

The low quality of the schools black and brown children attend is another critical piece of the problem. Children of color tend to be concentrated in low achieving, highly segregated schools. Recent research that I have done with two Harvard colleagues, Lindsay Page and John Willett, documents that the gaps between the achievement of students attending schools serving primarily students of color and the achievement of students in schools serving primarily non-Hispanic white students have increased steadily over the last three decades. In other words, the costs of segregation have increased.

The sources of the problem suggest three complementary policy approaches. The first is to invest intensively in high quality, full-day preschool. The evidence on the value of such investments is stronger than that for any other policy aimed at improving life chances for children of color. Such investments would need to be sufficient to provide programs of much greater quality than those provided in most of today’s Head Start programs.

A second approach is to strengthen low income families by reducing disincentives to marry, and by increasing resources available to support children. Amendments to the earned income tax credit (EITC) program could do both. Currently, eligibility for the EITC is restricted to low-wage earners who are responsible for children. The amount of the EITC a woman with children receives depends on the total of her labor market earnings and the earnings of her partner. Thus, divorce would increase the EITC for a couple, each of whom is a low-wage earner.

The EITC regulations could be altered so that eligibility for earnings supplements is based on the earnings of individual low-wage workers aged 21 to 54, irrespective of marital status. As explained by Gordon Berlin, who first proposed this amendment, this change in the EITC would eliminate the disincentive to marry and would also increase the potential for non-custodial fathers to pay child support. In other words, this is a promising strategy to strengthen families and increase the resources available to children from low-income families, who are disproportionately children of color.

The third essential is to dramatically improve urban public schools, especially middle schools and high schools. The difficult question is how to do it. Many initiatives have been tried — e.g., small schools, new curricula — that accept the student body composition as given and do not fundamentally change the daily experiences of students. While some initiatives have made a difference in selected schools, nothing tried to date has enabled any big city in America to create a system of effective high schools.

Moving forward, there are two options for bringing about real change. The first is to reverse the series of Supreme Court decisions over the last 35 years that have contributed to the segregation of American schools. While racial and socio-economic integration of schools is no panacea, exploring ways to increase the commitment of suburban communities to improving the education of urban students has substantive merit — if not political appeal. The second option is to dramatically change the middle school and high school experiences of urban youth. Options include travel, apprenticeships with craftspeople, and long-term individual tutorials — to name just a few of the activities through which affluent parents motivate and educate their teenagers.

I have no doubt that educational entrepreneurs could create a wide range of new educational options for urban youth that would improve their life chances. However, I do have doubts about the commitment of the country to pay for such dramatic change and to create the governance structures to support it. This is especially true since the consequences of not doing this will become evident only slowly, if inexorably. As the presidential campaign proceeds, we will learn whether any candidate has the leadership capacity and the will to convey to the American electorate that the country’s future depends on its young people, who are increasingly black or brown and who are not faring well in today’s big cities.

Andrew Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector and a member of Virginia’s Board of Education:

Different schools have different effects on similar students. That is the primary finding from social science research, and a fact around which education policy should be organized. Put more plainly: schools matter. They can be a powerful force to address the gap, and demographics are not destiny for students.

That does not mean that schools can eliminate all social inequality, or that policymakers shouldn’t take common sense steps like expanding access to healthcare and prenatal care in low-income communities. But it does mean that many schools can do much better with poor and minority students, and that holding schools accountable for student learning is neither punitive nor unfair.

Unfortunately, there is a small industry in the education community built around tacitly giving schools soothing reassurance that they really can’t do much better with poor and minority kids than they are today. They can. And rather than attacking the gaps poor students bring with them when they first arrive at school, we actually exacerbate gaps by giving the least to the very students who need the most. Rhetorically, people say that schools matter, but our public policies do not yet systemically reflect it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Research, such as that by William Sanders and Eric Hanushek, shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. Good teachers can actually close or eliminate the gaps in achievement on standardized tests that separate white and minority students. Conversely, when at-risk students have a couple of lousy teachers in a row, it almost irreparably harms them. Consequently, policymakers should be unyielding in their efforts to ensure that there are effective teachers in every classroom.

Unfortunately, a recent report from Education Week shows that, overall, we are doing anything but. Parents should support these efforts, most of all because good teachers teach; they don’t resort to drilling kids, rote memorization, or other strategies that suck the joy out of learning.

It is not just about training, pay, and accountability for teachers, but also about creating schools where high performers want to be — and are — supported in their work. As former California Board of Education president and Netflix founder Reed Hastings points out: today we have as much a shortage of places where good teachers want to work as we do a shortage of good teachers.

That’s why this is not just a teacher problem, it’s a systemic one. But if we organize the public education system around the idea that teachers and schools matter to student outcomes — instead of implicitly around the idea that they don’t — we’ll see results and gap closing.