Making consumers, not learners

Final Test: the battle for adequacy in America's schools

By Peter Schrag

The New Press pound;12.99

The Achievement Gap in US Education: canaries in the mine

By Mano Singham

Rowman and Littlefield pound;15.99

College Unranked: ending the admissions frenzy

Edited by Lloyd Thacker

Harvard University Press pound;10.95

There are 92,000 public schools in the United States. The gulf between the best of them and the worst is devastatingly wide. For much of the 20th century this was explained as a matter of ethnicity and colour; in the past 20 years, though, poverty has been recognised as a critical factor. Forty per cent of the US's schoolchildren are non-white; 35 per cent of them qualify for free or cut-price school meals. In 2000, the National Literacy Survey reported that 40 per cent of the black population and 17 per cent of the white population could not read.

There has been frenetic legislation to address this achievement gap. State legislatures have mandated minimum standards and high-stakes testing and have experimented with vouchers, charter schools and segregation; Washington has riposted with its "No Child Left Behind" Act as a precondition of federal funding. For the first time, government is laying down the parameters of what it sees as an effective public education system. This has had some unexpected effects. Education is a constitutional right in the US, and campaigners for better schools have begun challenging state authorities in the courts on the basis that they have not given the poorer schools adequate resources to meet these standards. Peter Schrag's The Final Test (first published in 2003, and now updated as a paperback) is a highly readable overview of this significant movement.

What emerges with brutal clarity is that at every level there are grotesque disparities. The poor schools are poor not just academically but financially; they have the least qualified teachers, the most inadequate buildings (a quarter of California's students are in portable classrooms) and the poorest leadership. In the cities, Schrag says, you can judge the quality of a school by the height of the building. It's infallible: the more storeys, the worse the performance.

But is inadequate resourcing the cause, or just the symptom? In an excellent central section he considers (and rejects) the claims of those who argue that it's all down to nature or nurture. He considers too (and, on balance, rejects) the argument that smaller classes and better resources will of themselves drive up standards. We need better teachers, better trained, he says, and we need them most in the schools that poor children go to. Politically, that's an awesome challenge, but if the current tide of adequacy cases prods politicians to address it (and he sees signs of that happening), the "great American promises" of opportunity and human betterment may yet, he thinks, be honoured.

Mano Singham's book deals with the achievement gap itself, and comes to not dissimilar conclusions. Like Schrag, he is sceptical about the conventional explanations. It isn't, he insists, simply about black underperformance; indeed, it isn't "simply" anything. It isn't about genetics (the infamous Bell Curve theory about ethnicity and IQ is genetically untenable), and it isn't about socio-economic differences between whites and blacks. On the same basis (because it seems to have an effect on middle-class black children from stable homes as well as on the poorer children) it isn't primarily about deprivation. It does seem to be associated, though, with the theory that black children, for understandable reasons, don't see the same links between effort and reward as white children tend to.

But he argues that the term "achievement gap" is misleading because it focuses our attention on a single part of the educational spectrum and tempts us to regard the rest as "satisfactory". It's a paradox, he says: we won't get the shortfall right until we re-examine the whole school system.

And the weakness of the system is that it has been geared for far too long, not to education, but to the needs of the workplace and the market. The only long-term solution to the problem of underachievement lies in making students want to learn, not because of what they might get if they succeed, but because they find learning interesting for its own sake.

This is a bravely unfashionable argument, but it finds support from an unexpected quarter. In College Unranked, admissions tutors from some of the US's most prestigious universities lift the lid on what league tables, choice and market forces are doing to higher education. College admission is a multi-billion-dollar industry; colleges shamelessly manipulate their rankings, and wealthy parents spend fortunes on consultants who know how to work the system. But where does education - "studenthood", the authors call it - fit in all this? On the basis of this honest and angry warning, almost nowhere: "Admission is the message we send to teenagers. They come to understand that their life is a marketplace and college is just one more product." If that is true, it says much about the achievement gap, and not just in the United States.

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