Education Achievement Gap? Why Bother?

Dan Seligman, who seems to delight in pathologizing the poor, writes in a new piece for that attempting to close the gap in achievement between disadvantaged and middle/upper class kids is is a waste of time, because it’s impossible to achieve. He writes:

It is not possible to close the achievement gap. The mission statement is a summons to a fool’s errand. The reason that the gap will never be eliminated is that intelligence rises with socioeconomic status. Estimated correlations between social class and IQ range from 0.3 to 0.7 (on a scale where 0 means no connection and 1 describes two variables marching in lockstep). Those figures tell us that the poor and disadvantaged have less cognitive ability than those from higher-status families.

Seligman is wrong on a number of points in the article. First, he claims that the “prime objective of educational policy is to eliminate the ‘achievement gap’. I don’t think any educator would make that claim. The goal of education, it seems to me, is to maximize the potential of all students. No district has as its primary goal eliminating the gap between its top and bottom students, though most, if not all, certainly would like to improve the dire results of the bottom group.

His core argument is a restatement of classic Social Darwinism: poor and disadvantaged students are just not as smart as wealthier, white kids. He couches his racism in the language of science and euphemism (disadvantage for minority), but his message is quite clear: the reason poor, minority kids are poor is because their parents are probably not terribly bright–because they are poor, and because they are non-white. It’s understandable why Seligman hides his message in the language Charles Murray neo-racist economic terminology, but it doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

Seligman is also dishonest. He approvingly cites William Mathis as saying that current plans to close the gap are “an exercise in ritualistic magic.” That’s because Mathis doesn’t think we are really trying. In another critique of NCLB, Mathis writes:

The system does not recognize that a hungry child with a poor, single parent and a violent home may not be focused on phonics each morning. The system does not ensure adequate money for an underfunded school. It gives no promise that children will not have to go to a dilapidated school. The system makes no distinction between a school with well-educated parents and generous resources and an impoverished school. Both schools are held to the same standard…Funding for education, prevention, and remediation must be adequate. This will require major new investments — particularly in poor, rural, and inner-city environments. We must undertake this effort not because it is the law but because it is what we should do.

That certainly doesn’t read like someone saying we should give up our efforts to end the achievement gap.
The final flaw in his argument is his argument that everyone hits a brick wall at some point in their education. That’s a hopeless and unfair idea. As Eduwonk points out, “there are brick walls and paper ones.” Relying on Seligman’s logic, the artificial barriers that keep poor students from succeeding are proof of their inability to succeed, not evidence of a system that presently is and historically has looked for reasons not to give these students opportunities.Seligman is right–not every student is going to master quantum mechanics. That’s not an excuse for failing to try to educate every student, for relying on dated, racist, anti-poor thinking as an excuse not to do our part to give students the chance to develop their skills to the fullest.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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