Why this education leader says it’s time to rethink our reliance on the racial achievement gap

Young student student doing a writing assignment
Photo: Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Ian Rowe knows about achievement gaps, and he is adamant that the metric is not helping kids. Rowe was the CEO of a network of public charter elementary and middle schools based in the south Bronx and the lower east side of Manhattan from 2010 to 2020. He’s also launched an international baccalaureate public charter high school also located in the Bronx.

Almost all the kids served by these schools are from low-income backgrounds and almost all are Black and Hispanic. Rowe, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is convinced that our education system is doing students a disservice by relying on racial achievement gaps – metrics that compare White student performance to that of other races. 

Rowe, who authored a chapter in a recently released book called “Unlocking the Future: Toward a New Reform Agenda for K-12 Education,” argues that instead of looking at a student’s race or economic status, educators should look at every child’s individual performance and equip them with skills to make decisions about their lives.

Ian Rowe with his hands folded
Ian Rowe says we need to change the way we think about racial achievement gaps to better serve students. Photo | Courtesy of AEI

“I’ve been very committed to the idea of improving outcomes, particularly for communities in which academic achievement has not been the norm,” Rowe told Chalkboard Review. “In District 12, in the Bronx, where we just launched our high school, only 7% of kids that start ninth grade graduate from high school ready for college.”

That means that even if they graduate, most can’t do college level math or reading without mediation if they were to go to college. 

“They do what they’re supposed to do, and they still cannot compete on equal footing,” Rowe said. 

“Part of what has led me to come up with the idea for ‘Distance to 100’ is that when I look at a lot of the analyses that are done to try and improve these outcomes, there’s a dominant framework which is often the racial achievement gap,” Rowe said. “That framework has failed, in my view, to shine a spotlight on any of the true causal factors explaining that gap, nor has it had any positive impact on actually narrowing those gaps.”

In his chapter of the book, Rowe delineates how the achievement gaps between socioeconomic status and race have not closed over the last 50 years. Rowe said the metric has failed because it is a lazy framework. 

“It’s very easy to only look at superficial characteristics, such as skin color, because that’s easy to measure and make the assumption that ‘If I’m measuring differences by skin color then the reason for those differences must be related to skin color,’” Rowe said. “And the assumption usually is ‘It must be due to discrimination based on skin color, racism, some kind of bias.’” 

That assumption has deleterious effects, Rowe argues.

“It immediately narrows your worldview of what true causality is related to and what types of better interventions should be tried to improve outcomes for all kids,” Rowe said. 

In response, Rowe lays out a different way to map student achievements that don’t rely on stacking up student proficiency against those of other races, a prevalent metric available from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). Rowe says that data makes White kids the standard and Black kids are in the inferior position. 

Rowe’s alternative is what he calls a Distance to 100 approach. 

“The basic premise of Distance to 100 is that an individual student is an individual student, not just a representative of some identity group,” Rowe said. “In a ‘Distance to 100’ approach, each child is actually treated as an individual.”

Rowe says that instead of looking at students’ performance in bar charts by race, each child would be represented by scatter plot distributions, where each child’s performance is represented on a graph as an individual data point. 

Rowe admits that there are practical challenges of plotting every child’s individual progress at a national level, but he says at a state or city level you could plot how every kid is performing and see high-performing students from all races at the top and bottom. 

“That would dispel this myth that race is the dominant factor holding kids back from performing at a high level,” Rowe said. “It would force you to ask the question, ‘What’s common about all the kids at the upper end of this spectrum?’” 

Rowe said the idea of his approach is that we would “obsess over success in the same way that we seem to obsess over failure today.” 

“The idea is that you’d have to consider other factors driving success,” Rowe said. “And the corollary is true. In that same graph, you’d notice that in the lower end of the spectrum, you’d see a multi-racial contingent. That would dispel this narrative that White student performance is this standard that we should all be shooting for.”

Rowe clarified that White students’ scores still leave much to be desired. 

“In the entire history of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, there has never been a year in which a majority of White students are reading at NAEP proficiency levels,” Rowe pointed out. You can find those data on the NAEP website

Rowe says that the Distance to 100 approach removes the artificial groupings that mask the actual factors that are driving performance, whether excellent or poor. 

“It forces you to ask the question: Why is this multiracial contingent in the lower end of the reading spectrum? Is it that they have not been taught along the lines of the science of reading, which has really emerged over the last few years? Is it that they are from unstable families? Is it that they don’t have access to school choice?”

Rowe acknowledges that there’s no way to stop using the racial achievement gap any time soon, but he hopes that supplementing the current framework could help reduce reliance on it. 

Rowe said it could be helpful to report the raw numbers. For example, how many White and Black 8th grade students failed NAEP proficiency standards instead of just reporting percentages. He also emphasized the need to report a student’s family structure, something NAEP does collect on a self-reported basis from students.

To Rowe, asking about a child’s home life could mean the possibility of illuminating new solutions.

“The structure and stability of the family in which a child is raised is far more determinative than race, gender, class – any of the factors that we are typically obsessed over,” Rowe said. “In order to prove that, we should have a data system that reports on the varying family structure.”

Rowe said that if education leaders know that family structure is a far greater determinant of outcomes for kids, solutions would include teaching kids today about how to make future family formation decisions so that future generations can benefit from greater stability. 

In his chapter, Rowe refers to a “success sequence,” graduating from high school, holding down a full-time job and getting married and then having children. Rowe writes that the outcomes of following the success sequence are startlingly effective: “97% of millennials who follow [the success] sequence are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years, ages 28–34.” 

There are ways schools can start teaching kids about the consequences of decision making. At Rowe’s high school, freshmen take a class called “Pathways to Power,” which teaches the likely rewards or consequences associated with different series of life decisions based on data.

“There are no victims in our school,” Rowe said. “They’re only architects of their own lives. They are the ones that have to make the decisions, particularly over the next 10 years of their lives, about education, work, relationships. We want them to have the best information so they can make the right decisions for themselves.” 

Rowe said that he’s working on putting this descriptive teaching method into a curriculum that will be distributed for free for schools to adopt these concepts for the classroom. Change, Rowe said, will only come when education leaders challenge the status quo.

“We, as the leaders in K-12 education reform, have to have the courage to recognize when the approaches we’ve been trying to deploy to improve outcomes for kids have not worked,” Rowe said. “We have to have the courage to say we need to change the way we are doing things, especially when it seems pretty intuitive that looking at kids solely as representatives of identity groups is almost by design going to send you down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with actual reasons that some kids may not be successful.”

“But that takes courage,” Rowe concluded. “That takes courage, and my hope is that we in K-12 education reform have the courage to make the shift on behalf of kids.” 

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at bclarey@franklinnews.org.

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