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Gary Thornock's Weblog » Closing the achievement gap
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7th Jul, 2005

Closing the achievement gap


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John Dougall has a good article over at Dynamic Range about the achievement gap in education, and why elminating it may not be a good idea. In the Deseret News article he links to, Mark Peterson of the State Office of Education is quoted as saying, "The achievement gap is a national disgrace, and it's a disgrace in Utah, and the State Board of Education is working to eradicate it."

The problem is, nobody seems sure which achievement gap they want to close. There are a few possibilities:

1 - The gap between the highest and lowest achieving individuals. This one is probably the easiest to close, but it's the one you least want to close, because that almost always means holding back the students at the top. Closing this gap is the worst kind of "one size fits all" educational planning.

2 - The gap between high and low achieving groups of students. There's a similar problem here: the easy way to close the gap is to hold back the advanced groups.

3 - The gap between a fixed standard, and students who don't reach the standard. This one deserves some work, but there are lots of complexities involved. Learning and motivation don't take place exclusively in the classroom, and neither do disadvantage and demotivation. But, the classroom side of the issue can and ought to be addressed — as long as we avoid the pitfall of closing the gap by lowering the standard.

One of the most damaging ideas that can ever arise in an office of education is the notion that "one size fits all". One size does not fit all, and trying to shoehorn all students into a single ill-fitting program is a recipe for disaster. What is needed, rather, is an educational system with the flexibility (and, yes, the funding) to allow and encourage every student to succeed to the best of his or her ability.

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