The Cartography Of High Expectations

In October of last year, the education advocacy group ConnCAN published a report called “The Roadmap to Closing the Gap” in Connecticut. This report says that the state must close its large achievement gaps by 2020 – that is, within eight years – and they use to data to argue that this goal is “both possible and achievable."

There is value in compiling data and disaggregating them by district and school. And ConnCAN, to its credit, doesn't use this analysis as a blatant vehicle to showcase its entire policy agenda, as advocacy organizations often do. But I am compelled to comment on this report, mostly as a springboard to a larger point about expectations.

However, first things first – a couple of very quick points about the analysis. There are 60-70 pages of district-by-district data in this report, all of it portrayed as a “roadmap” to closing Connecticut’s achievement gap. But it doesn't measure gaps and won't close them.

ConnCAN simply calculates, for 30 individual towns/districts, how many individual students (per grade, per year) would be required to improve in order for these systems to achieve 80 percent at grade level on state tests and 90 percent graduation, as well as the annual percentage point increase needed to get to an average SAT score of 1550. The first two targets correspond roughly to the proficiency and graduation rates among white students, while the third is the “college ready” benchmark score for the SAT.

Focusing on the number of individual students is supposed to make the goals seem attainable. However, most of these calculations are extremely misleading, as they fail to account for the fact that the students served by a district change every year (due to promotion and mobility). This is a common mistake in discussions of "growth." *

Also, these calculations are across all students - i.e., they aren't broken down by subgroup. Even if a town/district reached all the “additional students” targets in this report, the "gap closing" impact would depend on the distribution of improvement by subgroup. Actually, if the improving students are part of the higher-scoring subgroup(s), the discrepancies could widen. This too is a common problem with measuring raw achievement gap trends - even when all groups make progress, race- and income-based gaps can persist (or even increase).

However, these quibbles about measurement are not a big deal. Rather, there's a more general issue here, and while I will frame it in terms of this report, it’s not at all specific to ConnCAN (or to the achievement gap). 

As the report notes, Connecticut’s ESEA “flexibility” application sets targets that would, if met, close half the state’s achievement gaps by 2018 (at least as [poorly] gauged by proficiency rates). ConnCAN thinks we should almost double that ante and close the proficiency gap entirely in eight years, as well as those based on graduation rates and SAT scores.

The report says, “We cannot wait 100 years. We can’t even wait 10 years. We must close the gap by 2020."

Listen, when you’re dealing with individual students, maintaining the highest expectations, without exception, is crucial. And school- and district-level accountability targets should also set high goals, even if there's little chance they’ll be reached in the near-term. Accountability is about incentives, not prediction, and there's a role for organizations and individuals who guard against complacency.

However, there's a point at which well-intentioned ratcheting up of the expectations rhetoric crosses the border from healthy urgency to counterproductive fantasy. Schools are already under tremendous pressure to boost outcomes. Raising the bar from extremely unlikely to impossible isn't going to help (and could even backfire).

Every single state, as well as every nation, has income- and/or ethnicity-based achievement gaps (and Connecticut’s are particularly large). It would be great if we had the know-how and resources to close these gaps in eight or ten years. We don’t.

Saying that - or anything like that - won’t win you many friends or funding in education, but it’s true, and we all know it.

At the aggregate level, whether in terms of "gap closing" or just in general, real progress tends to be gradual and sustained. This is a multi-generational effort. It will take decades, not years, and will require both school and non-school intervention. 

Acknowledging that is not tantamount to maintaining "low expectations." In fact, among policy makers and analysts, calibration of expectations is critical, and failure to do so carries serious risks.

If we expect miracles, we will make bad decisions. We will shut down programs and schools that actually work well, just because they’re not working quickly enough to meet our impossible demands. We might create disincentives for investing in long-term improvement, and incentives for unwanted behavior. And, finally, we will mislead the public about the long and arduous road ahead. Maps of that road won't help much if they gloss over the lengthy journey by showing pretty pictures of the destination.

- Matt Di Carlo


* For instance, they calculate that, in New Haven, only 54 additional students would have to graduate every year to reach 90 percent by 2020. But that's not quite correct. Rather, assuming roughly constant size between cohorts (and putting aside the fact that the additional graduates may not be members of the subgroups with the lower rates), they would need to add 54 graduates to their current total in year one, 108 in year two, 162 in year three, and so on. A similar situation applies to each grade meeting the proficiency targets, as well as to the SAT scores (and, in all three cases, there is the added caveat that equivalent proficiency/graduation rates and average scores can still mask huge gaps between subgroups).


I agree with the author. I think there should always be a push to make ed programs that work, BUT it is really important to know what we are talking about when we are talking about work. Even in the non-profit circles in which I dwell in San Fran--not a town known for conservative politics-- there is this call for a type of efficiency that might work well in industry, but that does not in education. Just yesterday I was speaking with someone who runs a work program for at-risk young adults. The program requires GED class attendance in order for participants to keep their jobs, but these participants are required to have their GED's in 6 months. I have talented, bright GED students take longer than 6 months. The young men in this work program, I'm sure, are bright as well, but most of them haven't been in school in years. And yet, 6 months is what they get.

Ridiculous policies arise from not knowing the cartography of the goals at hand.