"The Rhetoric and Reality of Gap Closing:" A.k.a., the Socrates-Plato-Aristotle Problem of Teaching
February 26, 2016, 08:39 AM
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It’s frequently announced that an ultra-charismatic educator has recruited a super-dedicated set of teachers to implement a new paradigm at some school in Harlem, whose students now scores above the state average on test! Much of the time it turns out that the new paradigm depends upon cheating on the tests, but I like to believe that good people actually can pull this off honestly.

But, I then ask, what if the superstar educators were teaching in Westchester County instead? Do we really believe that Westchester County public schools are, on average, all that they can be? Or would it be possible to boost learning even in nice suburbs?

Here’s a survey paper on this old question:

The Rhetoric and Reality of Gap Closing

When the “Have-Nots” Gain but the “Haves” Gain Even More

Stephen J. Ceci and Paul B. Papierno

Cornell University

Many forms of intervention, across different domains, have the surprising effect of widening preexisting gaps between disadvantaged youth and their advantaged counterparts—if such interventions are made available to all students, not just to the disadvantaged. Whether this widening of gaps is incongruent with American interests and values requires an awareness of this gap-widening potential when interventions are universalized and a national policy that addresses the psychological, political, economic, and moral dimensions of elevating the top students—tomorrow’s business and science leaders—and/or elevating the bottom students to redress past inequalities and reduce the future costs associated with them. This article is a first step in bringing this dilemma to the attention of scholars and policymakers and prodding a national discussion. …

It turns out, however, that when these gap-narrowing interventions are universalized— given not only to the group of children who most need assistance but also to the more advantaged group (regardless of whether the latter is identified as White, rich, high ability, etc.), a surprising and unanticipated consequence sometimes occurs: The preintervention gap between the disadvantaged group and the advantaged group is actually widened as a consequence of making the intervention universally available. This is because, as we will show, although the disadvantaged children who most need the intervention do usually gain significantly from it, the higher functioning or more advantaged children occasionally benefit even more from the intervention. The result is increased disparity and a widening of the gap that existed prior to universalizing the intervention. This has led a prominent intervention researcher to bemoan the major drawback of universalization that “makes nice children even nicer but has a negligible effect on those children at greatest risk” (Offord, 1996, p. 338).

Is it possible that better teachers most benefit better students? Down through history it has been assumed that it was a good thing that Socrates had Plato for a student and that Plato had Aristotle for a student. Socrates could have taught the poor kids down at the docks in Piraeus, which would have reduced inequality. But instead he chose to hang out with the rich kids in Athens, which boosted absolute accomplishment.

As I wrote in 2010:

So what goal do I propose instead of Closing The Gap?

My goal, instead, would be to raise the average performance of all racial groups by half a standard deviation.

In other words, both goals are intended to improve the national average by half a standard deviation—but the Gates-Obama-Bush-Kennedy consensus wants to do it entirely by raising the scores of the minority half.

Which objective sounds more achievable?

Mine, obviously, for two reasons:

  1. Diminishing marginal returns: a one standard deviation improvement is not merely twice as hard to accomplish as a half-standard deviation performance, it’s much harder.
  2. Real improvements tend to better everybody's performance. For example, I can drive a golf ball farther off the tee than I could 15 years ago because driver technology has significantly improved. (Clubheads are approaching the size of toasters, so you can now take a wild swipe at the ball without fear of whiffing). But then, Phil Mickelson can also hit the ball farther, too. So the pro-hacker gap in driving distance hasn’t closed.
In summary: my aim is both more achievable, more fair, and more sensible than the Gates-Obama-Bush-Kennedy consensus.

And therefore, of course, it’s also much more unmentionable.

[Comment at Unz.com.]