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Op-Ed: The Myth of Sisyphus and the Achievement Gap

The tension between Americans’ belief in equality of educational opportunity and personal liberty means there will always be an achievement gap

John Kellmayer
John Kellmayer

I was a New Jersey school district superintendent for 17 years. I dealt with the achievement gap on a frequent basis. The New Jersey Department of Education monitors districts on their success in reducing the achievement gap and penalizes districts on the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) instrument for failure to reduce this gap.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus introduced his philosophy of the absurd. The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, where it is destined to fall back under its own weight. Are educators who seek to close the achievement gap doomed to suffer the same fate as Sisyphus? To understand the answer to this question, it is helpful to reconsider the Coleman Report.

The year 2016 represented the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report, also known as “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” At that time, schools had been desegregated for 12 years, but there was still an achievement gap. Congress wanted an explanation and commissioned James Coleman to find out why. In the 1966 landmark EEO report, Coleman and his team from Johns Hopkins University concluded that schools had little effect on the lives of students independent of parental, social, and economic status. Whereas Coleman’s research methodology had limitations, the fact that the Coleman report remains relevant more than 50 years later indicates the tremendous importance of the EEO.

Coleman concluded that about 80 percent of the variance in school achievement lay within schools and only 20 percent lay between schools. This finding implied that schools are much more alike than they are different, that schools have only modest effects on students’ achievement, and most of the factors that determine school success appear to lie outside the school and beyond the control of educators. In 1982 Coleman (with Hoffer and Kilgore) revisited this subject in another important study, “Public and Private Schools,” paying attention to “process” variables and concluding that more effective schools in both sectors shared certain characteristics such as rigorous academic demands and an orderly environment. The 1982 Coleman study was foundational in what became known as the effective-schools movement.

Though some of Coleman’s conclusions were almost certainly wrong, the stream of research begun by Coleman in 1966 is generative, with new facts, ideas, and explanations still being offered 52 years later. For example, emerging research indicates the critical importance of teacher quality on student achievement. Variations in teacher quality within schools seem to be much larger than between schools, an area of future research that holds much promise. What if all underachieving students were assigned a rigorous curriculum, clear and high academic standards, and the top teachers, instead of watered-down programs and less experienced and talented teachers? There are critical educational policy issues involved in matters such as teacher compensation, curriculum, and teacher assignment and quality; however, these are primarily political problems.

The 150-year reading gap

In “What Matters for Student Achievement” (2016), Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, discusses the Coleman Report and writes, “Yet when it comes to student achievement, we see that U.S. student performance is virtually unchanged from that in the early 1970s.” Commenting on the black-white achievement gap, Hanushek explains, “Put differently, if we continue to close gaps at the same rate in the future, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.”

Will the achievement gap still exist in another 50 years — in 2068? The answer is almost certainly yes, if for no other reason than the tension that exists between the conflicting beliefs in equality of educational opportunity and personal liberty. Ask someone if he believes that all children should have an equal opportunity for a good education and success in life. Virtually everyone will agree with this statement. Ask the same someone if he believes that if parents who possess the means to give their children a head start in life — better schools, after school tutoring, summer enrichment programs — should be permitted to do so. Virtually everyone will agree with this statement as well.

As America continues to fragment based on income and education into haves and have nots, the possibility that the achievement gap may actually widen cannot be denied. If that happens, then Sisyphus may not be a myth. Because of the tension that exists between Americans’ belief in equality of educational opportunity and personal liberty, there will always be an achievement gap and the achievement gap is primarily a political problem and not an educational one. This tension, however, doesn’t mean that educators should give up and accept the achievement gap as inevitable. But the responsibility for addressing the achievement gap begins with politicians — not educators.

John Kellmayer is a retired New Jersey school district superintendent with 17 years in that position. He teaches in the Stockton University Ed.D. program in organizational leadership. He is the author of six books.

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