Who’s Minding the Gap?

No Child Left Behind may have been faulty, but we still need to close the achievement gap

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Ah, the achievement gap. So much trouble to fix, so why bother trying? That seems to be the attitude in Washington, where pundits have spent the last several months ripping the current focus on improving the low end of student performance in our nation’s schools. In September the Obama Administration put forward a plan to offer waivers to states that want more flexibility — i.e., less ambitious targets — under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Last week the bottom really fell out when the Senate committee that handles education passed a rewrite of the No Child law basically leaving it to states to figure out how (and probably, in practice, even whether) to close the gaps. In other words, a decade after an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort to get serious about school accountability, it’s open season on a strong federal role in education. How did we get here?

Let’s start with the pundits. Leading the charge is the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess, who, in the fall issue of National Affairs, launched a contrarian broadside against NCLB’s focus on low-achieving students. “The relentless focus on gap-closing has transformed school reform into little more than a less objectionable rehash of the failed Great Society playbook,” Hess wrote. Next came a September report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, another conservative think tank, claiming that the current focus is shortchanging high-achievers. Yet the data in the Fordham report didn’t support its alarmist conclusions that high-achievers were being hurt by today’s policies. The truth is, according to Fordham’s own data, that high-performers didn’t fare that badly overall. Other evidence bears this out. None of that slowed down the pundits.

(MORE: A Looming Showdown Over No Child Left Behind)

Then we should move to the suburbs. No one is surprised when test scores show that urban and rural schools struggle a lot, but it’s in the suburbs where NCLB’s spotlight is most uncomfortable. Its emphasis on accountability for the performance of all students has revealed that poor and minority students are not doing very well in many of our nation’s most vaunted school systems. And since American politics are suburban-driven, policymakers seem eager to help sweep this unpleasantness under the rug. It’s the see no evil, hear no evil approach to school reform.

The administration’s waiver plan would give states more leeway in how they set performance targets for schools. It’s not as strong a policy as current law, but groups that support gap-closing efforts — for instance, the Education Trust — have signed onto the administration’s plan because it’s better than the solutions that Congress is offering up. The legislation under consideration in the Senate pretty much scraps efforts to close achievement gaps at all schools and focuses mostly on the bottom 5% of schools.

In a classic case of strange bedfellows, the education establishment and Congressional conservatives can all agree — albeit for different reasons — that these federal rules should go. Teachers’ unions and other special-interest education groups dislike the heavy pressure for school improvement from Washington. (And conservatives just dislike Washington.) This accounts for the sudden enthusiasm for states’ rights among Democrats, who generally favor an activist federal role in public policy. It’s also one reason Washington insiders think the Senate plan could get a favorable reception in the more conservative House.

Now comes the hard truth. No matter how many people try to argue that focusing on closing achievement gaps is a bad idea, it’s not. It’s still the right goal. And not merely for social reasons — although the crushed dreams, diminished opportunities, and the violence that today’s educational system does to communities and any semblance of equality should not be underestimated. Closing the gap is the right goal for economic reasons, too. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that closing the racial and ethnic achievement gaps would increase national gross domestic product by hundreds of billions of dollars, or 2% to 4% of our overall GDP. The cost of not addressing these gaps will obviously rise as America’s Hispanic population grows.

(MORE: The Education Crisis Everyone Is Ignoring)

The good, or at least not bad, news is that when it comes to focusing on the least advantaged students, the federal government has done alright over the years. For every fiasco — think busing — there are compelling counterexamples such as desegregation, special education and equal resources for girls under Title IX. And while today’s outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities as well as low-income students are unacceptable, the nation has made progress both before and after NCLB took effect.

So don’t be fooled by claims that gap closers don’t care about high-achieving students or assume these kids can just take care of themselves. Gap-closing proponents also favor gifted-education and similar programs, in part because poor and minority students are shortchanged on the high end as well. At some level, of course, there are tradeoffs — a dollar can’t be spent in two places. But gap closers’ main argument is that the enormous benefits of creating a more equitable society outweigh smaller costs of getting us there.

In no small way, it’s the same argument we’re having about taxes, Wall Street and the American social contract more generally. Unfortunately for minorities and poor kids in America’s public schools, no one is occupying parks or packing town hall meetings to demand much of anything for these children. Instead, at the one level of government that has looked out for them over the years — the federal level — policymakers are simply walking away.