March 11, 2005
Math Achievement-Gap Expert
Busts Myths About Public Education and Standardized Tests
child in a low-income district will not necessarily get a bad
education, or do poorly on standardized tests, according to an
education expert who dashed a number of myths during his talk
at Gamble Auditorium February 21.
P. Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and the executive director of the
Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said that one
of the more pernicious education myths is that demography is destiny. While
the myth holds in states that “do not have their act together,” Treisman
said, public policy can turn it around.
"Public policy matters,” said Treisman, who received a MacArthur Fellowship
in 1992 for his work fostering high achievement in mathematics among minority
students and was named as one of the outstanding leaders of higher education
in the twentieth century by the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education in
December 1999. His talk, “Of Math and Myth: The Role of Higher Education
in Strengthening Mathematics Education in the United States,” was sponsored
by the Office of Academic Development and the President’s Office.
In Houston, for example, administrators recognized that low-income families
move frequently (26 percent of Houston students attend more than one school
in a year), so the city established a managed curriculum requiring that all
schools use the same materials. As a result, students who changed schools picked
up where they left off, and the city’s test scores improved.
By contrast, Chicago teachers choose their own books and establish their own
curriculum, rendering what Treisman called “a total incoherent mess.”
The comparison highlights another of Treisman’s points: that schools
should choose a curriculum not according to an educational fad, but according
to the needs of the ambient community.
"Curriculum fads are really off-base,” he said.
Treisman defended controversial standardized tests, which have become much
more common in recent years, because he said they redirect resources to the
children who have typically received fewer education resources.
"The U.S. knows how to educate kids,” Treisman said. “The fundamental
question is: whose kids do we choose to educate?”
In Texas and North Carolina, for example, minority test scores are scrutinized
most closely. Because schools are judged unsuccessful if their minority students
score low, the schools have redirected their attention to groups that affect
the ratings, Treisman said. They reassigned teachers and provided minority
children with better resources.
The results have been dramatic: the performance gap between black and white
fifth-grade students, for example, shrank from 20 percent to four percent in
six years. Results for other grades are comparable.
Treisman conceded that standardized tests have disadvantages. In Texas, there
was widespread cheating, and the state made it a criminal offense to commit
fraud on these tests. In Florida, civics was eliminated in some places so that
students could spend more time on algebra, to raise those scores. But these
examples are not justification for throwing away standardized tests, according
"[The tests] are blunt instruments,” he said. “The way to work
on this is to search for finer instruments.”
Treisman said the purpose of schools is connected to the social contract that
underlies democracy; people must believe that hard work pays off. If people
believe their children have no chance to succeed—that demography is destiny—then
the fabric of society falls apart.
Treisman’s talk also pointed out that terms such as “achievement
gap” are less meaningful when applied only to one or a small range of
institutions, according to Lucas Wilson, associate professor of African American
studies and economics and director of the Office of Academic Development. “The ‘underperformers’ in
a Texas public school, for example, could very likely be outperforming the
top performers in a school district in a state that does not have its act together.”
At the same time, Wilson noted that Treisman’s comments stressed a key
concept in the “no child left behind” approach, that of setting
a bar under which no student is allowed to fall.
Addressing the need of the poorest academic performers ensures that resources
will be aimed at poor performers and, once schools start to succeed in this
area, demon- strates that the problems of educational attainment are not based
on “innate student ability,” but on societal investment in children.
However, according to Wilson, Texas’s educational policies are still
marked by significant problems, including the facts that they neither address
the “profoundly segregated” nature of many neighborhood schools
in Texas, nor promote class and racial integration in our society. In addition,
cheating has increased substantially in response to the expanded use and weight
given to standardized tests.