Closing the Gap

Michael Fullan is an internationally recognized authority on educational reform.  His ideas have informed the thinking of thousands of educators in many countries.  His long list of published works includes The New Meaning of Educational Change, published in its 4th edition in 2007.  This summer, while reading Chapter 3, “Insights Into the Change Process,” I scribbled in the margin of my book “Wow, I don’t agree!”  Let’s take a look at the statement in Fullan’s book that caused me to write that and a connection that I believe exists to an issue we are discussing often today, the Common Core Standards.

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In Chapter 3, Mr. Fullan (2007) lists ten “elements of successful change.”  He expands each of the ten elements with explanation that is often insightful and challenging.  My copy of the book is filled with highlights and my personal notes, most in agreement.  What, then, prompted me to write “Wow, I don’t agree!”

The statement that sparked that response is the very first of Fullan’s ten elements of successful change: “Define closing the gap as the overarching goal.”  Expanding that statement, Fullan writes, “The first thing is to realize that decreasing the gap between high and low performers—boys, girls; ethnic groups; poor, rich; special education—is crucial because it has so many social consequences.  The remaining nine strategic focuses are all in the service of gap closing” (p. 45).  In fairness, I must note that just a couple of paragraphs later Fullan states, “Remember, we are talking about raising the bar for all, not just closing the gap” (p. 45), but the focus is clearly on gap closing.  Should closing the gap really be the “overarching goal” of educational change?

A focus on closing the gap is well-intentioned but will almost certainly result in poorly directed resources and inappropriate measures of success.  How might the gap be closed?  Have we succeeded when the gap narrows?

No conscientious educator would ever intentionally pull students down in order to close the gap between low and high achievers; but if resources are directed primarily at elevating low-achieving students, will the performance of high-achieving students decline?  What if, instead, we maintain achievement levels for high-performing students and focus energy on elevating low-performing students?  That approach would serve the gap-closing ideal.  But doesn’t that approach assume that high-performing students are not capable of even higher performance?

Let me suggest a connection to the Common Core Standards.  Many experts have reviewed the standards, with varying opinions about their quality.  I have studied both the Mathematics Standards and the English Language Arts Standards.  I am not an expert, but my initial conclusion is that the standards are generally rigorous and appropriate for most of the young people I have known in my thirty years of education.

But, they are too rigorous for some low-performing students and not rigorous enough for some high-performing students. Any attempt to apply them equally to all students would be a one-size-fits-all approach.  No teacher would assume that a set of standards could be created that would be appropriate for all students, and the creators of the Common Core Standards do not intend that the standards establish the bar for all students.  The standards are intended to be a floor and not a ceiling.  They definitely are not a ceiling.

A number of writers have pointed out, for instance, that, with the exception of a few standards in trigonometry, the math standards include no essential skills beyond Algebra II.  Jason Zimba, a lead writer of the standards, told the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that the math standards are “not only not for STEM, they are also not for selective colleges” (Zimba, 2010, “Massachusetts Board”).

However, when federal government agencies ramp up pressure on states and school districts to ensure that low-achieving students master CCS at proficient levels, will that effort cause the standards to become a ceiling?  There’s the connection between the CCS and Mr. Fullan’s “overarching goal.”  A well-intentioned but misguided focus on gap-closing, coupled with uniform standards for all students, measured and enforced by distant federal bureaucrats, will ensure that the gap will narrow; but excellence will suffer.

If closing the gap is not the overarching goal, what should be the overarching goal?  In Christian schools, we have the opportunity to get this right.  Every child is a unique creation of our loving and sovereign God.  Every child has gifts and abilities given by God.  Every child is responsible to develop fully his gifts and return them as an offering in service to his heavenly Father.  Our focus is not on closing the gap but on helping each child develop his unique gifts as fully as possible to the end that he might glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Do you agree with “Closing the Gap”?  Share your feedback with us!  

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References

Fullan, M. (2007) The New Meaning of Educational Change.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Zimba, J. (2010) From a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.  Retrieved from http://pioneerinstitute.org/news/video-common-core-lead-writer-jason-zimba/

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Winter 2014 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.