By Michael J. Petrilli
Veteran education analyst Marc Tucker wrote something the other day that stopped me cold. Describing some of the highest performing education systems in the world, he said, “Students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen.”
If we could replicate this in America, it would change secondary education forever. No longer would middle schools be faced with the impossible task of catching up kids who are desperately behind while at the same time accelerating the progress of their grade-level peers. There would be no more excuses for assigning work to students far below their grade level, as TNTP just found to be a widespread practice. And if most students were on track academically, or close to it, high schools could offer real college-prep and career-readiness pathways that lead to success in postsecondary education, good jobs, and far more.
But could such a track record be replicated here? There’s no one way to go about that, no silver bullet, but several key pieces would help: high-quality preschool to help kids get closer to readiness for Kindergarten; effective, evidence-based reading instruction, including phonics and phonemic awareness, the likes of which many schools still avoid; ample instruction in history, science, and the arts to boost students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension, as well as vital knowledge; a great curriculum aligned to academic standards; effective, well-trained, well-supported teachers; longer school days or years; and wrap-around supports to make sure that kids’ physical and emotional needs are met, so they can learn.
Doing all of that, and doing it well, would make a huge difference. But what if it still isn’t enough?
Consider, for example, KIPP DC, in particular its Douglass campus in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. It is considered among the very best schools in the city, if not the country, ticking off all of the items on the list of solutions above—including high-quality, full-day preschool starting at age three.
KIPP is achieving remarkable results, better than almost anyone else. Yet it still has children making the transition to the middle years who are far behind. At KIPP’s Douglass campus, just 21 percent of fifth graders score at the proficient level (4 out of 5) on the PARCC test for reading and writing; if we include those at level 3, it goes up to 51 percent. KIPP does better in math: 45 percent of fifth graders score a 4 or 5; 69 percent are at 3 or above.
That still means that about half of these KIPPsters are heading to sixth grade far behind in reading and writing, and nearly a third are doing the same in math. Which in turn means that the very best of the best high-poverty schools are struggling, generally without success, to get everyone caught up before the middle years.
That’s not the case for affluent schools across town. Look at Lafayette Elementary, in Washington’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood. There, 77 percent of fifth graders got a 4 or 5 on the reading and writing test, and 72 percent did the same for math. If we include the students who got a 3, it goes up to 96 percent and 97 percent, respectively.
What’s the takeaway? Even with high-quality preschool, and even with a fantastic elementary school, even with longer school days and years, there’s just not enough time in the six years from kindergarten through grade five to help all low-income kids catch up to the grade-level expectations they will face in middle school. The impacts of poverty and related social challenges are just too overwhelming. This is particularly the case for reading, where the slow, gradual, and cumulative process of building content knowledge and vocabulary simply cannot be rushed.
So why not give them more time?
Grades K–5 in seven years instead of six
Imagine if KIPP and other high-poverty schools were able to add an extra grade to elementary school—call it grade 2.5. Students would enter elementary school at age five, but instead of leaving at eleven they would exit at age twelve. In effect, schools would create a default policy to retain most students after the second grade.
This is a cousin of policies that many states have implemented to “end social promotion” and retain a small sliver of students who cannot read with fair fluency by the end of the third grade. The research on most of those efforts is somewhere between mixed and disappointing, which isn’t surprising given the way those policies are usually implemented (though Florida is a notable exception). For the kids, it feels like a punishment and a mark of shame, and all they get is a second helping of the same curriculum that didn’t work for them the first time. Meanwhile, the vast majority of kids are socially promoted anyway, even though they haven’t come close to mastering grade-level standards.
What I have in mind with the addition of grade 2.5 is quite different than simply retaining a handful of students. It’s more akin to what some private schools do, by inserting a “junior kindergarten” or the like before (or sometimes after) kindergarten. They add some time and flexibility into the design of the school so kids who start out behind (maybe because they are relatively young, or just because they don’t have the same skills yet) can catch up at a more leisurely pace. Often these efforts are combined with multi-age classrooms so students can move ahead in the progression without changing classes or making it obvious which kids are moving up and which are staying behind.
And frankly it’s not so different from what many affluent parents do (myself included) by redshirting their kids, starting them in kindergarten at age six instead of five. Moms and dads with money can afford to keep their slower-to-develop children in preschool; that’s not an option for the poor. But it means that many of our own kids get the benefit of more time, and physical/mental/emotional maturity, when they hit the grade-level standards that school imposes on them.
How might this actually work? Let’s say that a high-poverty school wants to ensure that all its students are at or near grade-level standards on their way into third grade. It would take a high-quality, well-aligned curriculum and stretch out grades K–2 over four years instead of three. Ideally, the program would be flexible enough to allow students to move through the program at their own pace (a version of personalized and competency-based education). It might enable such flexibility by grouping kids in multi-age classrooms like Montessori schools do.
At the end of second grade, most students would graduate to grade 2.5. But high-achieving students might skip that, and move ahead to third grade, and eventually beyond. They would “accelerate,” which also happens to be the gifted-and-talented strategy with the most solid research base.
No doubt there would be logistical challenges, especially once the model was up and running for several years. After all, this means keeping most kids in elementary school for an extra year, which would require about 15 percent more space, and more teachers, than our current model. But if there were ever a time to try this, it’s now. Thanks to the post-Great Recession “Baby Bust,” our elementary school population is plummeting. Many schools are going to be forced to shrink—reducing their teaching staff and leaving classrooms empty. Not if we add a year!
Then there’s the money. Under typical school finance systems, schools could simply report to the state that they’re requiring a whole lot of kids to repeat second grade. The funds should keep flowing just as they always do. And again, given the Baby Bust, we’re not talking about additional dollars coming out of the pockets of taxpayers, though it would mean spending more money on fewer students—and spending it on the ones who need it the most. Whether such a system would be sustainable politically over the long term is an important question.
But that’s a good debate to have. Investing in getting low-income kids caught up at age seven or eight is surely more cost-effective than trying to do it when they are twelve or twenty. Plus, given the redshirting of so many affluent children, it’s a question of fairness. Why don’t some high-poverty schools volunteer to give it a try?
School districts all across America have long suffered from “excellence gaps” in which advantaged students reach high levels of achievement at significantly greater rates than their less affluent peers. But some school systems are working to combat it.
One such place is Montgomery County, Maryland, a large district in the Washington, D.C., area that’s made strides in diversifying the students served by its gifted education programs. By expanding the number of seats, universally screening every third grader, using more holistic identification criteria, and selecting students based on how they perform compared to kids at their school instead of the entire district (using “local norms”), administrators increased the proportion of black and Hispanic elementary-school participants from 23 percent in 2016 to 31 percent today.
What school leaders, policymakers, educators, and advocates need to recognize, however, is that these very important, short-term changes are only part of the solution. It’s not enough to diversify gifted education offerings. The programs must also continue to challenge all of their students and maximize their potential. They must remain, in other words, excellent.
Yet one of the problems with achieving both of these aims is that various forms of inequality cause disadvantaged students, through no fault of their own, to achieve at much lower levels than their advantaged peers. This means that top pupils from low-income schools tend to be academically behind the top performers district-wide. That’s the rationale for using local norms. Yet, as Fordham’s Checker Finn wrote in a recent Flypaper article, when districts like Montgomery County scrap district norms to admit more pupils from lower-performing schools, one of two things happen: “either the kids will fail or the curriculum and pedagogy will have to be dumbed down to accommodate them.”
Consider, for example, a telling anecdote from Dana Goldstein’s excellent report on Montgomery Country’s transformation in the New York Times:
Kimberly Petrola, a fourth-grade teacher at Fox Chapel Elementary School in Germantown, one of the Centers for Enriched Studies, acknowledged that instruction had changed since the school became part of the pilot program last year, ahead of the rest of the county.
With a more diverse student body, not every child performed above grade level, Ms. Petrola said. She said she and other teachers used ability grouping to teach at different levels. For example, for a unit in which students read an author’s autobiography and fiction side by side, to look for consistent themes, some groups were assigned authors who wrote at a more challenging reading level.
Ms. Petrola is describing a pedagogical practice commonly known as differentiation. It's akin to presenting a soccer coach with players who have widely varying abilities and skill sets. The coach will attempt to challenge each player to build on their specific strengths and remediate their weaknesses, but no one coach can do a great job with all of them all of the time, especially when limited by time and resources. And neither can teachers with all of their students. The wider the range of student performance in a classroom, the more difficult, if not impossible, differentiation becomes. It’s a practice most often used in districts that don’t group pupils by ability—so it’s worrisome to see such a stark example of it in a gifted program.
And this precisely is why Montgomery Country’s work—and the work of any district instituting important, short-term reforms like local norms and universal screening—is far from done. Anecdotal evidence is building up around the country that districts may be focusing on these short-term changes and, pleased by significant improvements in representation, stopping there. But those policies aren’t magic. They don’t fix or wipe out poverty, discrimination, poor preparation, and other factors that lead to underachieving students. Districts must also undertake the harder, much longer-term efforts needed to close excellence gaps. There are three paths they can take.
First, instead of creating a centralized gifted program in separate buildings or a single locale, base services in each school and use a combination of local and national norms to identify the high-potential students within each building. This gets around curricular and pedagogical worries by allowing educators to tailor their efforts to the top students in each school. Parents would be less concerned about who gets selected to go to the special school because rigorous academic services are provided right in the home school. Jonathan and his colleagues have an ongoing study whose preliminary results point strongly in this direction. One potential drawback is that it might do less to narrow the achievement gap between high achievers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds within a single school, but it can lessen gaps across districts, especially when districts are residentially segregated.
Option number two is to frontload rigorous learning early and often so students can capitalize on opportunities when provided. In other words, raise schools’ academic rigor in early grades so that low-income students are ready for more advanced offerings at a younger age than they are now. Then use universal screening as students get older, when the excellence gap has hopefully narrowed. This isn’t impossible, but it is difficult. Turning around the debilitating effects of generational poverty, for example, or remediating years of under-challenge won’t happen overnight. But we are starting to see examples of frontloading efforts that are working: In particular, the math talent development program in the Gadsen (AZ) Elementary District and Project EXCITE at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development have shown solid evidence of success when programs are in it for the long haul.
The third path combines options one and two. Frontload early and often, and base gifted services in each school. Miami-Dade’s efforts to frontload for AP programs and the New York Edge afterschool Excellence Project appear to be taking this approach.
Many districts around the country have identified excellence gaps as a major issue in their schools and communities, but examples of large-scale efforts to begin shrinking those gaps are not widespread. So Montgomery County should be applauded for its earnest efforts to combat a problem that has long harmed disadvantaged high achievers—who, sadly, are among America’s most neglected students.
But identifying and serving a more diverse set of students is just the start. The district, and so many others like it, must also help all children in its programs reach their full potential. Only then can we truly narrow excellence gaps.
In the beloved 1990s British television series Father Ted, Ted ruins a Rover 213 that was supposed to be an auction prize to raise money to fix the Craggy Island parochial house roof. After spotting a dent, Ted tries to hammer it out. Hammering out the small dent creates another dent, which he then tries to hammer out, and by the time he’s done, he’s destroyed the entire car.
It is a great visualization of the bad consequences of good intentions.
Reading recent stories about the trials and tribulations of unified enrollment systems reminds me of Ted’s misadventure. Central planners tinker and tinker, causing new problems for each one they solve. Perhaps they should stop before they’ve wrecked the whole thing.
For those who may be unfamiliar, unified enrollment systems were created for cities that have a lot of potential school choices for families. Rather than admit students on a first come first served basis or have each and every school manage its own enrollment and hold its own lottery, a central system is created that allows families to rank their preferences. These preferences are fed into a computer algorithm that, in theory, should maximize the number of children getting into the schools they prefer.
Unified enrollment systems are responding to real problems. Making families enter a dozen or more lotteries to find a seat for their child in a charter school is cumbersome. Some public magnet schools get filled on a first-come-first-served basis with an application process is hard to divine. Making the process fair and transparent is important to ensure that schools that are ostensibly open enrollment are in fact open enrollment.
That said, unified enrollment systems can also be a one-stop shop for central planners looking to impose their own visions of what schools should look like. What is often left out of discussions about unified enrollment systems is that more than just parental preferences can be loaded into the algorithm. Various preferences are included that can increase or decrease a student’s likelihood of getting into a school of their choice. Some of these make sense, for example, granting preference to students who already have a sibling in the school. But the more and more tweaks get added into the system, the less and less it reflects parental choices, and the more it reflects what central authorities want schools to look like.
A recent story out of Boston illustrates this well. Researchers examining the city’s enrollment system (for its traditional public schools) found that it was exacerbating segregation, one of the very problems it was created to solve. How could this be?
The designers of Boston’s enrollment system built in rules that created that outcome. The algorithm preferences students who live close to a school. Since more sought after schools were more likely to be located in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, wealthier and whiter students had the first crack at getting into them. Segregation was exacerbated.
But Boston is not alone. New Orleans’s OneApp system has generally received high praise, but this year it had the lowest rate of students matching to one of their top three choices since its introduction. In response to different and at time competing demands, the OneApp system has all kinds of preferences built in that shape the eventual outcome. Its opacity is driving parents nuts.
I worry that we’re going to see more of this. Much of what I read about unified enrollment systems is about how to tinker with these systems to produce some desired outcome. How can we change the algorithm to promote integration? How can we change the algorithm to shorten transportation time? How can we “nudge” families into schools with higher test scores?
Each of these goals is laudable, but each rests upon judgment calls. What is the ideal racial makeup of a school? What is the ideal travel time? How do we weigh school performance versus the host of other things that parents might want from schools? They become more complex the more variables you add. How do we balance integration and travel times? Travel times and school performance? Each tweak in one part of the system undermines the tweaks made in the other part of the system.
Dealing with these fraught and value-laden debates via algorithm might be the worst way to handle them. Changes occur outside of public view. Without access to data or advanced training in statistics, just how much one facet is valued over another is completely unclear. Families are simply expected to accept the results and trust the algorithm. They have no reason to do so.
I’m not against common application systems or other mechanisms to reduce the frictions in matching children to schools they want to attend. But, I, and other policymakers and social reformers have to resist the temptation to manipulate unified enrollment systems to reach whatever our desired ends are. Use these systems to make school assignment fairer and level the playing field when it comes to applying to schools. Use them to make parents’ lives easier. Don’t use them to try and engineer the ideal school system. We’ll just wreck the car.
Mike McShane is the director of national research at EdChoice.
This article was originally published by Forbes.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Interesting factoid: 54 percent of students who take the SAT retake it at least once. I was one of them back in the day, hoping that I could muster a high enough score to see my way into my number-one college pick. It didn’t happen. Mind you, I did score higher the second time, just not high enough.
Turns out, I’m not alone. Many young people see higher scores on college entrance exams the second time around, as evidenced by a new National Bureau of Economic Research study conducted by Joshua Goodman, Oded Gurantz, and Jonathan Smith.
They examine the impact of retaking college entrance exams, specifically the SAT, on test scores and college enrollment. They gather student-level data from the College Board—specifically, 12 million students from the high school classes of 2006–14 who had valid scores on all three sections of the SAT and first took it by November of their senior year and thus had time to retake it prior to graduating. They match SAT data with college application and enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Because SAT retakers are likely to differ from non-retakers along any number of dimensions, analysts needed an “exogenous source of variation” that affects retaking but is not related to students’ unobserved characteristics. To their credit, they developed a clever study design that borrows from the behavioral economics literature. The latter demonstrates that individuals focus disproportionately on the leftmost digits of numbers when making decisions, including when they buy goods like cars and houses. For instance, homebuyers may find a price tag of $699,999 more palatable than $700,000.
Prior related research has also shown that students scoring just below multiples of one hundred tend to retake the SAT at higher rates than those scoring right at or above various round-number thresholds. Given that students scoring just below and above a given level are otherwise nearly identical, Goodman et al. use these round number cutoffs to estimate the causal impact of retaking the SAT on SAT scores and college enrollment.
Of import to this study, nearly 75 percent of four-year colleges that use SAT scores in the admissions process publicly claim to consider only a student’s maximum score, which means that retaking only improves students’ chances of being admitted by making their application more competitive. Descriptive statistics also show that females are 3 percentage points more likely to retake than males and Asian American students are 12 percentage points more likely to retake than white students.
The key finding is that retaking the SAT once improves students’ scores by nearly 0.3 standard deviations, which equates to 90 points on a 2400 point scale. For students who initially score in the lower half of the SAT distribution, retaking once boosts scores by nearly 0.4 SD (or 120 points on a 2400 point scale).
The score increases are large enough to drive big improvements in college enrollment, too. On average, retaking increases the probability of a student enrolling in a four-year college by 13 percentage points, largely because students choose not to enroll in two-year colleges instead. Retaking also causes students to enroll in colleges with historically higher degree completion rates than they would otherwise (partly because four-year colleges have higher rates). These impacts are driven mostly by lower-scoring, low-income, and minority students. Higher-scoring students see smaller gains, in part because of ceiling effects. Finally, they estimate that eliminating disparities in retake rates between low- and high-income students could close up to 20 percent of the four-year college-enrollment gap by income.
One of the authors’ chief recommendations is to encourage students to take their first SAT test earlier to leave more time for another bite of the apple. A second is to make it more widely known that retakes are allowed, since some students may be unaware.
In the end, my higher retake score helped to get me “waitlisted” until the second semester at my first-choice college. I chose not to transfer because life at my plan-B school was pretty good after all.
May all retakers be so fortunate.
SOURCE: Joshua Goodman et al., “Take Two! SAT Retaking and College Enrollment Gaps,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2018).
K–12 education in America is making greater and greater use of digital resources. Schools are using them for ease (group collaboration via Google Docs), expense (electronic textbooks and curricular materials are cheap and easily distributed), and convenience (group chats and electronic grade reporting make necessary communication quick and uniform). Additionally, the workplaces into which graduates will emerge run on digital devices—even in more traditional fields such as medicine and manufacturing.
It is easy for those of us old enough to have memories of yesterday’s analogue world to minimize this evolution. We adapted to email easily enough and were quick to trade our pagers for flip phones, after all. But the more that non-electronic alternatives bow out and the more our world is run by digital natives, we ignore inequitable access to technology at the peril of our young people. A new brief from ACT, Inc. shines some interesting light on the status of technology access among today’s students.
A group of ACT researchers surveyed a random sample of 7,233 American students who took the ACT as part of its national administration in April 2017. Students were asked a series of questions about the availability and use of electronics at home, including the number and kinds of electronic devices they had access to, the type and reliability of the internet connections available to them, and how often they needed to use their home devices and internet access for various school-related activities. The good news is that 85 percent of respondents reported having access to between two and five devices. The bad news is that 14 percent of respondents reported having access to just one device.
That wouldn’t be such bad news if it was the right device—such as an internet-connected computer. Unfortunately, for the majority of these students, their sole device is a smartphone. Despite advances over the last ten years, smartphones are of course poorly adapted for writing papers, doing research, and completing typical homework assignments. Additionally, nearly half of these single-device students (47 percent) have access to the internet only via a monthly cellular data plan. While unlimited data plans are more readily available and cheaper than in the past, they are not universally available and often lack strong coverage even in urban areas. To say nothing of rural dead zones. These less-than-reliable connections can further limit the usefulness of any given device, especially in regard to unplanned work or long-form assignments. This may be foreign for those of us with unlimited broadband access, but anyone counting minutes of data (perhaps sharing them with other family members, including other students) or struggling with signal strength will at one time or another have to sacrifice today’s thorough work for the sake of tomorrow’s access. Although the most-reported school activity engaged in via electronic devices by all students was checking grades (kudos on the diligence!), the next five were variations of homework, research, writing papers, and student/teacher communication. Across the board, students with access to a single device reported engaging in all these activities less than students with access to two or more devices, with smartphone-only students engaging in them less than all other students in the survey.
Those of us with ready and automatic access to powerful technology and the breadth of the internet cannot dismiss the “digital divide.” Technology use in the work world, in college, and in the military is on an unrelenting advance. We cannot accept such a divide in K–12 education. Students trying to research and write papers on a phone with a monthly data plan is tantamount to malpractice. However, the complete solution to this problem does not rest on the education system. Universal broadband access, called for in ACT’s recommendations, is a civic responsibility. Those efforts can be aided by private enterprise, as can the expansion of access to fully functional digital devices—laptops with word and data processing software built in, educational apps, and search engines—for students. These devices, especially for high schoolers readying for the leap to college, should be required school supplies, and every effort should be made to ensure they have them.
SOURCE: Raeal Moore, PhD, Dan Vitale, and Nycole Stawinoga, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity: A Look at Students with Very Limited Access to Electronic Devices at Home,” ACT, Inc. (August, 2018).
On this week’s podcast, Emily Hanford, a senior education correspondent and producer at APM Reports, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss her recent documentary on the sad state of reading instruction. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines TNTP’s new report about the inferior academic experiences of disadvantaged students.
Amber’s Research Minute
“The Opportunity Myth,” TNTP (September 2018).