Do We Need To Level The Playing Field—Or Tilt It?

Do We Need To Level The Playing Field—Or Tilt It?

Education February 12, 2014 / By Annie Murphy Paul
Do We Need To Level The Playing Field—Or Tilt It?

Is leveling the playing field in terms of school resources an appropriate goal? Or do we need to go beyond that, to “tipping” the playing field to make up for other disadvantages poor children suffer?

In struggling urban school systems like the one in Chicago, students may be significantly behind grade level in math—four to ten years behind grade level. How do you even begin to address a gap that big?

“Tutoring on steroids” is the answer offered by the Chicago Urban Education Lab, which has just released a new study of the effects of the intensive tutoring program it offers to some students, almost all of them poor African-American boys. From the University of Chicago’s website:

“For the new report, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the UChicago team tracked the impact of tutoring and mentoring among 106 ninth- and tenth-grade students at Harper High School in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood for six months in 2012 and 2013. Students were selected randomly to permit rigorous analysis of the outcomes.

In addition to a significant jump in math test scores, students receiving tutoring and mentoring failed two fewer courses per year on average than students who did not participate, and their likelihood of being ‘on track’ for graduation rose by nearly one-half.”

In this “high-dosage tutoring” program, students receive individualized math tutoring for one hour per day, every day; each math tutor works with just two students at a time.

The intensive approach that is yielding success in Chicago put me in mind of an article I read last year in Education Digest; it had the provocative title, “Don’t Level the Playing Field—Tip It Toward the Underdogs.” Written by Susan Neuman of the University of Michigan and Donna Celano of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, the article argued that we ought to un-level the playing field:

“Too many government programs are aimed at ‘leveling the playing field,’ giving high-poverty students a leg up by equalizing educational resources with more affluent communities. Today, the ‘comparability’ provisions in federal and state funding programs, for example, are what officials use to ensure equal educational opportunity among lower- and higher-income students. But equal community-based resources do not create equal opportunity. We need to provide more resources and additionalsupports to students in poor neighborhoods”

In another article, this one appearing in Educational Leadership, Neuman expands on the notion that “leveling the playing field” (a formulation beloved of politicians) is hardly an adequate measure for poor children in the U.S.:

“The notion of providing equal resources is only helpful when none of the competing partners has an advantage at the outset. The certainly not the case for students who come from poor neighborhoods when compared with more affluent peers.”

This article originally appeared at The Brilliant Report

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