The Transatlantic Excellence Gap: A Comparative Study of England and the USA

Part 1 – the USA

My first post identified the excellence-equity polarity as critical in determining gifted education policy.  Currently the star of equity appears to be in the ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have been re-reading ‘Mind The (Other) Gap: The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education’ (February 2010) by Plucker, Burroughs and Song from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at the Indiana University School of Education.

I did so in the light of two recent developments, one in either country:

  • in the United States, Arne Duncan’s July 2010 speech at the Centennial Conference of the National Urban League;
  • in the United Kingdom, Michael Gove’s appearance before the Education Select Committee during which he set out his vision for the Coalition Government’s education reforms.

It struck me that, in setting out their commitment to bringing about greater educational equity, neither politician overtly mentioned the excellence gap, although it was certainly implicit in their respective comments.

I fell to wondering whether the US Democrat or the UK Coalition Conservative would actively address this issue – perhaps after appropriate advocacy – and by what means they could do so, given their respective policy priorities.

What is the Excellence Gap?

Plucker et al applied the term to differences between the achievement of advantaged and disadvantaged students performing at the highest levels. They considered sub-groups based on gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background and English language proficiency and used NAEP data for grades 4 and 8 in reading and maths..

I will focus here on differences attributable to socio-economic background (while acknowledging the complex way in which this interacts with the three remaining variables – and others).

On both sides of the Atlantic the socio-economically disadvantaged population is typically (but not invariably) defined in terms of eligibility for free/subsidised school meals.

The key findings from the study are that:

  • Whereas No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has had some success in narrowing achievement gaps for many learners, this is not true of high achievers. The claim that one often hears used to justify gifted education – that the rising tide raises all ships – is not true of the NCLB.
  • There is no substantive evidence that the NCLB focus on lower achievers has actually increased the excellence gap, although the majority of states surveyed by the NAGC felt that NCLB had diverted attention and resource away from gifted education.
  • In some cases where the excellence gap appears to be shrinking, this is attributable to a dip in performance at the higher level – rather than all achievers improving their performance with lower achievers improving at a relatively faster rate.
  • Federal involvement in narrowing the excellence gap is negligible. It is cited as one of several aims of the Javits Program, but Plucker et al do not offer any evidence that Javits has brought about any substantive improvements, so ‘damning Javits with no praise’.
  • There will be a further study (not yet published) on whether and how state policies and interventions reduce the excellence gap. One can hypothesise that, because richer districts are more likely to invest in gifted education, this is likely to widen the gap, but there is no data to substantiate this.

The Relationship with McKinsey’s ‘Top Gap’

The CEEP report references the 2009 McKinsey study ‘The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools’.

In this report, Mc Kinsey identify a ‘top gap’ – a term which they deploy in two different ways:

  • the gap between the number of top performers and the level of top performance in the US and the comparable number and level in other countries; and
  • the gap in the US between the proportion of Black/Latino students and the proportion of all students within the highest achieving group.

Had they wished, they could have applied this second usage to socio-economic as well as to ethnic minority achievement gaps.

They go on to quantify the enormous economic costs of achievement gaps but, unfortunately, they do not separately estimate the economic costs of closing either version of the ‘top gap’.

Had they done so, this would have been highly pertinent to my earlier posts on the Economics of Gifted Education.

Recommendations from the Excellence Gap Report

Plucker et al offer a set of straightforward recommendations:

  • The US Government should make closing the excellence gap a national and state-level priority – and should consider the effect of all new policies in addressing this priority;
  • The US Government should determine the optimal blend of national, state and local interventions to narrow the gap; this will involve more research into effective strategies. (They do not argue specifically for an extension of Javits, presumably because they have reservations about its track record in achieving change);
  • There should be financial incentives to encourage states, districts and schools to tackle the excellence gap – and realistic targets for them to aim at; and a few obvious ‘quick wins’ should be secured at state level; and
  • High achievement ceilings should be built into the assessment processes supporting the common national standards currently being considered – and largely adopted – by different states.

Duncan’s Speech to the National Urban League

Arne Duncan gave this wide-ranging speech on 30 July in Washington DC. It sets out his view of how the various Federal education policy interventions will act to close achievement gaps.

There is the usual reference to giving ‘every child…the opportunity to fulfil their tremendous academic and social potential’, but Duncan also made a nod in the broad direction of gifted education:

‘Together, we must make it – not just OK – we must make it cool, we must make it hip, to be smart’.

‘We have to both strive for excellence and help those at the bottom who have furthest to go. That’s our commitment.’

He argued that several policies would help to achieve these ends including:

  • Improving access to early learning;
  • The Teacher Incentive Fund – to encourage the best teachers to schools that serve predominantly poor and minority pupils;
  • Federal school improvement grants – the Turnaround Program
  • Funding for parental engagement and compulsory community and parental involvement in school improvement;
  • Funding for community colleges, universities serving minority populations and student support;
  • The adoption of common core standards

He defended Race To The Top against criticism that it does not help disadvantaged and minority students by arguing that it has caused several states to change laws that restricted the growth of charter schools serving these populations. He also cited controversial legal changes that permit teacher evaluation to be tied to pupil achievement.

But he also announced a new Excellence and Equity Commission, to be based in the Office for Civil Rights in the Department for Education.

The Department’s press release makes clear that the 15-member Commission will consider the full gamut of inequities in K-12 education and how they contribute to the achievement gap, offering recommendations for how these inequities should be addressed.

Duncan himself highlighted the Commission’s role in making school funding more equitable, by considering how to remedy the large variance in district-level educational investment. He also confirmed that he wanted more federal Title I funding to reach schools serving low-income children.

So Will Duncan Address the Excellence Gap?

Well the answer probably depends on how vigorously this is advocated. There is a big difference between paying vague lip-service to gifted education and being convinced by the hard evidence.

But tackling excellence gaps is potentially politically significant to any Government that is committed to strengthening social mobility and avoiding ‘deficit model’ thinking in respect of its disadvantaged and ethnic minority learners.

The best way of demonstrating that poor and minority students can make it to the top is by supporting more of them to do so – rather than concentrating exclusively on eliminating the ‘long tail of low achievement’.

The arguments advanced by Duncan are vigorously contested, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We must judge his reforms by examining the longitudinal data to see whether excellence gaps are reduced – and without a drop in the performance of those students who are already high-achieving. One would hope that is part of the CEEP’s future work programme.

Gifted education advocates in the US may well need to target the new Excellence and Equity Commission, ensuring that it gives due attention to the excellence gap as part of its remit.

The CEEP’s next report on effective state-level interventions may provide useful evidence for them to consider. They might also engage an economist to calculate the financial cost to the country of ignoring the excellence gap, using the methodology established by McKinsey.

What do you think? Will Duncan and the Democrats give the excellence gap the attention it deserves – or will they inevitably fall back into a deficit model vision of educational equity which focusses exclusively on meeting the needs of low-achieving learners?

In part two we will ask the same question of the UK.

GP

August 2010

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