Some Thoughts on Effective Schooling, No Child Left Behind and the Achievement Gap

May 5, 2008

A perpetually vexing problem in American education is the substantially lower mean levels of achievement in virtually all academic subjects by African American, Hispanic, and poor students. The problem is evident from varied but consistent indices: lower grades, lower performance on state-mandated standardized tests, substantially higher drop out rates, and lower average performance on college admissions tests.

Historically, two schools of thought have dominated the debate over how best to gauge whether individual schools are doing a good job of educating these students. One might be called the “valued-added” school and the other the “final status” school. Advocates of the value-added criterion maintain that the only reasonable and fair standard for assessing school effectiveness is how effectively schools educate students, given their entering level of achievement. The argument is that it is simply unreasonable to expect schools in the nation’s large urban areas to produce the same levels of achievement as well-funded suburban schools. In their paper in ERS Spectrum (Spring, 2005), entitled “The Perfect Storm in Urban Schools: Student, Teacher, and Principal Transience,” researchers Hampton and Purcell of Cleveland State University describe in painful detail the dimensions of the problems faced by the vast majority of the nation’s urban schools. The picture they describe is not pretty. Against a community backdrop of linguistic diversity, broken-homes, poverty, joblessness, and despair is a confluence of transienciesa transience of students, a transience of teachers, a transience of principals, and, they might well have added, a transience of superintendents. All combine to form a “perfect storm” that could not have been purposefully scripted better to produce lasting and pervasive failure. No wonder the modest “value-added” approach to assessing school quality has such widespread appeal.

The alternative view is that a goal of modest year-to-year growth for students who are seriously behind their peers is both defeatist and demeaning. Clinical mental retardation excepted, all students can learn and can achieve at high levels, and accepting anything less than excellence is to admit defeat. Moreover, the value-added approach to assessing school effectiveness carries for many the odious implication that such limited achievement is all that these students are capable of.

The argument of the “final status” advocates gains considerable credibility when they point to “existence proofs,” inner-city schools whose students’ performance on any number of achievement measures is comparable to those of the best schools in the metropolitan area. The R. L. Vann School in the poverty-stricken “Hill District” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a 99% African American student body, is a case in point. Although I have not followed its progress in recent years, throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, the school consistently performed on a par with the best schools in the area on any number of standardized achievement tests in math and English Language Arts. For readers with a statistical bent, the situation is dramatically illustrated when the Pittsburgh school medians on standardized tests are plotted against school SES (as indexed by “percent free lunch”). On first blush, the scatter plot of points appears to be a misprint, with the Vann School appearing as an outlier in the extreme upper left hand corner of the swarm of points. The school is in the top quarter in achievement and the bottom quarter in SES.

The controversial and politically explosive No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has placed both the Achievement Gap and the “value added vs. final status” controversy in stark relief. NCLB requires among other things that states specify for their schools “adequate yearly progress” toward reducing the achievement gap. The legislation has reawakened a host of old and difficult questions: What will we accept as “adequate yearly progress?” What role should standardized tests play in monitoring student achievement and in evaluating teacher and principal effectiveness? What is the best way to gauge “school effectiveness?” Put more starkly, What do we mean by a “successful” or “effective” school, and what do we mean by a “failing” or “unsuccessful” one? These questions take on enormous political, social and even moral overtones when they are applied equally to an under-funded urban school populated primarily by poor and minority children, on the one hand, and to a well-funded suburban school populated by middle and upper-class majority students, on the other.

The most contentious provisions of the bill are the series of sanctions for continued failure to meet the specified adequate yearly progress. These cover the spectrum from developing and implementing a plan for improvement, to allowing the affected students to change schools, to turning the school over to the state or a private, for-profit agency with a proven record of success. Several states have sued in federal court arguing that such sanctions without federally appropriated money to finance needed improvements are unconstitutional.

In such a climate, where the very motives of each side in the debate are often impugned, it is easy to lose sight of what should be our common goal. We may disagree about means and methods, but we should be united in our commitment as educators and citizens to the ultimate end in view, exemplified in the words of no less a thinker than John Dewey. A century ago he wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”


Dewey, J. (1907). The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1907).

Hampton, F., & Purcell, T. (2005). “The Perfect Storm in Urban Schools: Student, Teacher, and Principal Transience.” ERS Spectrum, 23(2), 12-22.
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