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Wisdom means that sometimes you change your mind. Regarding closing achievement gaps, I've changed mine twice.

Growing up in a blue-collar, integrated Baltimore County (Maryland) community made me concerned about achievement gaps. On average, African American and Hispanic 12th-graders read and calculate at levels several years behind white and Asian American peers. Achievement gaps between rich and poor kids are comparable.

As a high school journalist back in the 1970s, I interviewed Baltimore County School Superintendent Joshua Wheeler, who professed that some kids learned and some did not, and there was precious little schools could do about it. Dr. Wheeler seemingly considered most minorities (and working-class white kids like me) largely uneducable. After all, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: Our parents weren't smart enough to move to neighborhoods with good schools so, naturally, we weren't smart enough to learn.

The late Dr. Wheeler subscribed to the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, published in 1918 but still influential in the 1970s, and today. The Principles present academic learning as something for elites. Exposing regular kids to substantive curricula only harms their self-esteem. Accordingly, public schools should prioritize social activities and athletics rather than academics, to serve "all kids." Only one of the seven Cardinal Principals focuses on academics: the awkwardly constructed "command of fundamental processes" covers English, math, sciences and social sciences, indeed most recognizable scholarly disciplines.

No wonder many of my teachers had little knowledge of the subjects they taught. Dr. Wheeler and his underlings hired those teachers. In contrast, administrators would never have hired football coaches who misunderstood football. Personnel policies reflect priorities.

I found Wheeler's ideas appalling, but I respected him as a person. Wheeler took an hour out of his busy day for an interview with a lowly high school journalist. Wheeler meant well. Unusual for a Marylander of his era, he seemingly never took bribes from contractors. He worked hard in 40-odd years building a big bureaucracy. Moreover, Wheeler had it right that schools find it easier to educate rich kids from two-parent homes, and that wealth and family correlate with race.

For years, I accepted Wheeler's paradigm that public schools could not close the achievement gaps society created. Then in the 1990s, smart, idealistic young people with degrees from fancy colleges founded dozens, and then hundreds of high-poverty/high-achievement public charter schools with strange names like YES-Prep and KIPP. Quantitative evaluations demonstrated their success, and I saw it firsthand in fieldwork. I came to believe that public charter schools could close the achievement gaps that traditional public schools widened.

Then in the 2010s, my mind changed again. I starting doing fieldwork in exotic places like Rogers, Springdale, and my own Fayetteville, where some traditional public schools excelled. I came to believe most schools can reduce achievement gaps by doing four things.

First, principals must hire and retain capable, knowledgeable teachers smart enough to challenge advantaged kids and dedicated enough to teach disadvantaged kids. That sounds obvious, but in practice, we often hire for likeability rather than ability, compliance over performance.

Second, educators must build relationships with disadvantaged parents, many of whom themselves had bad schooling experiences. Visit students' homes in the first weeks of school to establish rapport. As one principal told me, make your first contacts positive; then later, if Johnny skips his homework, mom will back the teacher. When educators and parents join forces, kids usually come around.

Third, from day one, enforce discipline: If a few kids run wild, no one can learn. Read Wong and Wong's The First Days of School.

Finally, collect real-time student achievement data several times annually--MAPP testing may be the best--and use it to set goals for students to at least reach proficiency before fifth grade. Close achievement gaps in elementary school while a student has one teacher. In secondary schools, kids have six or more teachers. Given diffusion of responsibility, many kids fall in the cracks. Closing achievement gaps in elementary schools enables us to integrate high schools and society. If a kid stays behind in elementary, usually, it's game over.

Do the big four, and you can slash achievement gaps in five years, the time a child moves from kindergarten to fifth grade--without harming those who already excel.

If you care about educational equity and achievement, talk about these ideas in this year's school board elections, and beyond.


Robert Maranto ( is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and serves on his local school board. The views expressed here are his alone.

Editorial on 04/19/2019

Print Headline: For the students


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  • Arkansas123
    April 19, 2019 at 11:04 a.m.

    1st, hire leadership that know how to align resources for student learning and lead.

    I meet many capable teachers who are absolutely oppressed by poor leadership.

  • PopMom
    April 19, 2019 at 11:33 a.m.

    Good column. I am a Little Rock native living in Maryland whose kids attend the fabulous Montgomery County public schools. The curriculum requires large amounts of reading and writing and math year after year. Students attend classes tailored for their level so that they get the attention or the accelerated material that they need. In elementary school, slow readers get specialized one on one attention. History classes require reading and writing—not just the recitation of facts. Summer enrichment courses are common. Teachers are decently paid, but low performing teachers are fired. Teacher training is a priority. I’ve seen first hand that academic performance correlates to amount of time spent reading and studying. The Asians tend to spend numerous hours each week studying above what is required by class. It is their hard work, not the color of their skin which produces the academic success. I don’t agree that long hours of daily studying is too much unless the child is self-motivated, but every parent and school system should work toward producing students who are capable of obtaining work skills.