Closing the Achievement Gap
From the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of NR


Reihan Salam
We know by now that increased funding will not miraculously close the achievement gap. We also know that there is no single recipe for improving educational outcomes for minority students. Reducing the influence of the teachers’ unions seems to be an important first step, as Texas’s experience suggests. Doing so gives schools the political breathing room they need to deploy their resources with the interests of students, as opposed to union leaders, foremost in mind. Allowing schools through trial and error to discover effective new instructional methods also holds great promise. But there remains the question of what exactly is to be done.

Closing the achievement gap through new methods and new policy is not impossible, as gains made in recent years by black students demonstrate. In a recent study, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that African-American students who entered high-quality charter schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone scored as well in mathematics as white children nationally.

The work of James Heckman, widely considered America’s foremost education researcher, offers important insight on how to spread these gains. He finds that education reforms can be cost-effective, but only if they meet certain criteria. First, interventions should address the needs of children very early in life. As we age, our ability to absorb knowledge decreases. A school system that targets 16-year-olds after a decade of deficiency is not likely to succeed.

Second, interventions should mainly inculcate behavioral norms, not cognitive skills — for example, social skills, an ability to control aggression, and a propensity to follow rules. Such norms are particularly lacking among disadvantaged children from broken homes and neighborhoods with weak social bonds. One reason to focus on these norms and social abilities is that they are far more malleable than cognitive skills, and thus more susceptible to the influence of well-designed educational programs. Moreover, social skills and norms of conduct are as important for success in school and in the labor market as cognitive skills.

Finally, Heckman contends that programs must be targeted toward the truly disadvantaged in order to be cost-effective. Universal pre-school programs geared toward the middle class, such as those championed by President Obama, do not appear to work as well. In the case of middle-class children, families and communities already do an excellent job of norm- and character-formation, so universal pre-school education is largely a waste of scarce resources. It is for poor students that public schools must pick up the slack, and for whom the programs are effective. Such a strategy has been aggressively pursued by the highly successful KIPP charter-school network.

All of this is more easily said than done. Shifting resources from failed approaches to more successful ones will start political fights that will make Wisconsin’s recent battles look easy. One factor encouraging change, however, has been the rise of innovative educational technologies, which are quickly rendering traditional classrooms obsolete and undermining the power of the teachers’ unions. Another is the growing frustration among African Americans and Hispanics, who are keenly aware that traditional public schools are failing their children. This, in turn, has forced a growing number of Democrats to reconsider their party’s alliance with the teachers’ unions, and to consider more innovative approaches to improving educational performance.

What hasn’t happened, and what needs to happen, is for middle-class voters to recognize that the achievement gap isn’t some sentimental side issue that shouldn’t concern serious people. Rather, it is absolutely central to America’s economic future.

— Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at Economics 21. Tino Sanandaji holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Chicago and is a research fellow at the Institute for Industrial Economics. This article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of National Review.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review