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How Colleges Can Help Close K-12 Achievement Gaps | Inside Higher Ed

I’ve gotten a fair amount of pushback on my piece on K-12 school reform and the failure of grade schools, middle schools, and high schools, to close achievement gaps.  Those comments deserve a detailed response.

As some of my correspondents have pointed out:

1. The standardized tests used to assess student learning don’t count toward students’ grades and may therefore provide inaccurate and misleading measures of student knowledge and skills.

2. Performance on the tests varies substantially among the states, with some, like Massachusetts, reporting much higher rates of student achievement and much smaller gaps in performance.  As the noted legal commentator who goes under the banner of Unemployed Northeastern puts it: “Some states are busy banning books, other states are busy educating students.”

3. It’s certainly true that college graduation rates have risen sharply in recent years even as student diversity has grown, suggesting that the purported crisis in student learning may be greatly exaggerated.

In other words, we simply don’t know with any certainty if US students are less knowledgeable or skilled than their international counterparts or whether the situation is worsening or improving.

That said, I should add:  Even though today’s public schools are more diverse than they were in 1954, they remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.  Indeed, they are more segregated today than in the late 1960s.  Correlation isn’t causation, but it does seem clear that today’s de facto school segregation is a major contributor to achievement gaps.

The United States differs from other post-industrial societies in its extremely high rate of concentrated poverty, which closely correlates with levels of family instability, housing and food insecurity, stress and clinical depression, violence and crime, and other factors that may adversely affect academic performance.  Schools in high poverty neighborhoods also have especially high numbers of English language learners and greater student churn.

Another likely contributor to achievement gaps is the large share of the population that lives in more insular, isolated rural and exurban areas with limited job prospects and a smaller pool of potential teachers.  These areas have much lower rates of college attendance, suggesting that higher education is less valued and isn’t a priority.

Unemployed Northeastern underscores a point that I wish I had made: Most states and many parents have been dogged in their “determination to stymie Brown v. Board of Education and keep schools as segregated as possible, whether through districting, zoning, NIMBYism, moving out of cities, etc.”   That’s not, I’m afraid, much different from what elite colleges and universities have done in using legacy admissions and preferences for private school graduates, faculty and large donor’s children, and athletes in country club sports, as well as personality ratings (which purportedly measure likability, courage, kindness and being widely respected) and, in the past, well-roundedness, to craft their entering class. 

Over time, funding across school district lines has grown more equal.  Indeed, within individual states, spending on instruction and student support is far more equal in K-12 schools than in colleges.  Nevertheless, disparities in K-12 education persist in access to advanced classes, including Calculus, AP courses, International Baccalaureate programs, and early college/dual enrollment classes.  There are also gaps in access to experienced teachers, art and music classes, and afterschool clubs.

To be sure, there are pronounced disparities in performance among students from low-income backgrounds.  This is apparently related to:

  • Place of residence, with a smaller share of low-income Asian American students attending high poverty schools.
  • A family’s socio-economic status prior to immigration to the United States.
  • Differing rates of participation in afterschool enrichment programs and weekend academies.
  • Disparities in teacher expectations along ethnic and racial lines.
  • And, more controversially, apparent differences in familial perceptions about whether advanced education will pay off.

So where does that leave me?  I fear that some of the proposed solutions to disparities in educational achievement will backfire.  Eliminating standardized testing to monitor K-12 achievement risks of blinding administrators, teachers, and the general public to improvements or losses in performance and to equity gaps.  Eliminating opportunities for especially talented students to pursue advanced mathematics runs the risk of reducing the number well-prepared for success in computer science, data analytics, statistics, and many areas of the natural and social sciences.


It’s clear that this society hasn’t done nearly enough to ensure that all students enjoy an equal start.  That would require the country to do much more to end concentrated poverty through enhanced efforts at neighborhood integration and adoption of more robust family supports.  Those, unfortunately, are not steps that society is currently prepared to take.  In Unemployed Northeastern words: They’re a “political death trap.”


What, then, should colleges and universities do if they want to address inequities in the K-12 to college pipeline?

Now that upwards of 90 percent of high school graduates hope to go to college, we must do more to better connect K-12 schools with the higher education sector.  Here’s how.

1. Do more to meet teachers’ professional development needs in terms of content and pedagogy, including digital pedagogies – either in person or online.

2. Make high quality instructional resources and tools available for free.

3. Partner with neighboring school teachers to develop high quality early college/dual degree courses.

4. Expand pre-college summer programs, especially in math and science.

5. Make the college application and enrollment process as seamless as possible.

6. Place more undergraduates and graduate students into local schools as tutors, academic coaches and advisers, teacher assistants, and providers of afterschool programs. 

7. Encourage undergraduates to combine a bachelor’s degree with teaching certification.

I also whole-heartedly endorse a suggestion made by Unemployed Northeastern: Colleges and universities should help devise new testing mechanisms that are “less teachable via expensive test prep and more incorporating of students’ wildly varying SES backgrounds [and] school quality.” Such tests should utilize all that we’ve learned about over the past century about testing design, test anxiety, and stereotype threat, measure growth as well as a student’s level of performance and proficiency, and be part of a more integrated, multi-faceted, and holistic approach to assessment.

I sometimes quip that it took a century to erect a wall between higher education and high school.  It past time to tear that wall down.

The pandemic, we now know, significantly worsened K-12 equity achievement gaps. Let’s step up to the plate and address this challenge.  It’s a potential win-win, especially for broad-access regional and urban institutions that are experiencing enrollment losses. Addressing educational equity requires an all-hands-on-deck effort.   So let’s enhance our K-12 partnerships and better prepare public school students for college.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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