Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices
reviewed by Dale Whittington - 2004
Title: Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices
Author(s): Belinda Williams (Editor)
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
ISBN: 0871208385, Pages: , Year: 2003
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This book’s first edition was commissioned to provide a theoretical and practical knowledge base to help overcome obstacles to urban academic performance. (Williams, 1996) Designed to move beyond city borders, this second edition addresses the question, “What else do we need to know and do to close the achievement gaps among groups?”(p. 1).
Belinda Williams, the book’s editor, poses this question in the introduction. The introduction and the first chapter preview how authors of the book’s nine chapters answer this question, identify the book’s intended audiences, who range from educators to legislators, and establish a case for the book.
Williams opens with a powerful set of statistics depicting achievement gaps and discusses the gaps’ complexity. Calling educational reform efforts “superficial,” “fragmented,” and “inadequate,” she decries a tendency toward one-size-fits-all, simplistic thinking. There are unique reasons for achievement gaps, she warns, so readers should not confuse the goal of raising the overall achievement level with closing achievement gaps between groups. She discusses obstacles to closing gaps and suggests varied, complex solutions. She proposes a restructured learning theory that integrates cultural and social contexts and the developmental process, with experiential and content knowledge that make learning experiences meaningful to children. We already know a great deal about learning, development, and social/cultural contexts, Williams argues. To help close gaps, we need to reframe what we know and present it in a provocative way that cannot be ignored.
Closing the Achievement Gap’s authors and topics align with Williams’ approach: interdisciplinary, cultural in perspective, and complex. The authors represent multiple academic perspectives. Their work addresses educational topics from a cultural standpoint. The chapters address complex changes needed in several contexts, from classrooms to communities. While agreeing that simplistic reforms don’t work, these authors are realistic. None flinches from the question: Is there the political will to do what it takes to close the gaps?
Marzano’s chapter on direct vocabulary instruction and Bernard’s chapter on turnaround teachers and schools most effectively connect culture, teaching and learning research with promising innovations. Robert Marzano masterfully delineates the theoretical underpinnings for direct vocabulary instruction, making a strong case for the key role of vocabulary in attaining achievement. While his discussion of crystallized intelligence, memory and language is challenging, Marzano succinctly presents tough, complex notions. His suggestions for instruction are clear. Bonnie Benard’s framework for looking at the practices of turnaround teachers and schools is clear, easy-to-read, and grounded in Bernard’s research and a synthesis of research on effective teaching. She has included several checklists to help teachers and schools identify what they already do and target improvements. The ideas and information in both chapters will resonate with practitioners.
Kenneth Zeichner’s chapter on urban teacher education and Karen Seashore Louis and Debra Ingram’s chapter delineating professional and organizational transformations for urban schools are clear and thought provoking. Zeichner describes effective teachers of poor children of color and delineates specific ways teacher education must change in order to prepare such teachers. Louis and Ingram depict reciprocal relationships among students’ academic success, teacher efficacy and teacher engagement, relationships that pose a dilemma for urban schools, where they are challenging to forge. They use profiles and experiences of three highly engaged schools to suggest resolutions. Some suggestions, however, depend on hard-to-reach levels of financial commitment and political will. While offering new insights, these chapters parallel versions from the first edition and fail to move beyond urban boundaries, as Williams intended. This may inadvertently reinforce notions that achievement gaps are an urban phenomenon.
The remaining three chapters are problematic for differing combinations of reasons: lack of persuasive evidence of success, a tendency to over-generalize, and/or text that is difficult to follow.
JoAnn B. Manning and John A. Kovach tackle the achievement gap’s complexity: its causes, impact, transcendence beyond urban borders and social-class lines, increasing visibility, and resources needed to close it. Unfortunately their three cases illustrating successful closing of the gap depend on debatable evidence. One rests on a sometimes-disputed claim that TAAS score improvements are real. (Haney, 1998; Klein, Hamilton, McCaffrey, and Stecher, 2000) The second cites one school’s third-grade improvement on a single test (SAT-9 math). The third reports general test-score improvement in Michigan, but it is unclear that any gap narrowed. NAEP math and reading data from NAEP’s website indicate no significant narrowing of gaps associated with gender, race, or poverty for Michigan’s fourth or eighth graders since 1992 (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2003a; 2003b; 2003c). The authors’ line of reasoning is sometimes difficult to follow, perhaps due to the breadth and complexity of their analysis. This is unfortunate; embedded in this chapter are many important ideas.
After summarizing the opportunity-to-learn (OTL) framework, Floraline Stevens recounts a multi-year workshop project for training teachers about OTL and associated assessment strategies. Year-to-year changes in test percentiles are reported. A comment about the magnitude of year-to-year change indicates confusion about the ordinal, rather than interval, nature of percentile scores. This raises questions about how data were combined and renders the evidence for success suspect. Stevens’ emphasis on the project’s story, rather than on its accomplishments and how others can adapt it, weakens the chapter’s ability to accomplish the book’s larger aims or meet audience needs.
Elise Trumbull, Patricia Marks Greenfield and Blanca Quiroz build their chapter around two concepts: 1) cultural value orientations and 2) the distinction between collectivistic (characterizing ethnic cultures) and individualistic (characterizing schools and teachers) value orientations. These concepts explain differences in achievement orientation. Employing illustrative vignettes, the authors describe the emergence of problems that impair academic success. They describe the Bridging Cultures Project and suggest ways to adapt the project’s principles to educate children from other cultures. These authors advocate a rich, nuanced understanding of cultures, but at times they seem to lump non-Euro cultures together as collectivistic, describe teachers and schools collectively as individualistic, and depict general teacher preparation as omitting cultural issues. Such simplistic portrayals diminish the chapter’s merits.
In Closing the Achievement Gap, Williams calls for an integrated theory of learning and practice and challenges readers to recognize the real complexity and hurdles that gaps present. However, not all of the scholars who have contributed to this book effectively buttress and elucidate her important case. Partially this is due to the lack of compelling evidence that gaps were always closed. Partially this is due to diverse, sometimes confusing approaches taken in developing the chapters. To make the book compelling and provocative, all chapters need a common focus and clarity about how they answer their part of the question. While “the gap” is discussed in all chapters, the term seems to take on different meanings in different chapters, leaving readers to sort out whether and how much each chapter legitimately applies to their circumstances. Furthermore the door is opened to the potential misunderstanding that the ideas in any chapter can apply to any gap—another kind of “one-size-fits-all” way of thinking.
Haney, W. (2000) The myth of the Texas miracle In education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8 (41). Available at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/.
Klein, S.P., Hamilton, L.S., McCaffrey, D.F., and Stecher, B.M. (2000). What do test scores in Texas tell us? Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8 (49). Available at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n49/.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2003a) Michigan/Mathematics Composite/Grade 4/ 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2003. Gaps and changes in gaps for selected subgroups. Available at
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2003b) Michigan/Mathematics Composite/Grade 8/ 1990, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2003. Gaps and changes in gaps for selected subgroups.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2003c) Michigan/Reading Composite/Grade 4/ 1992, 1998, 2002 and 2003. Gaps and changes in gaps for selected subgroups. Available at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/getdata.asp
Williams, B. (Ed.) (1996) Closing the achievement gap. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.