“Close Achievement Gaps”

Yesterday evening, Obama held a press conference marking his first 100 days as President. But I want to comment on this statement he made yesterday morning at a Town Hall in Arnold, Missouri:

We’re going to continue to help our schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps.

The notion of ‘closing achievement gaps’ has persisted among public school employees for decades, and it remains a big effort. In a 110-page document entitled Closing Achievement Gaps: An Association Guide The National Education Association (NEA), a labor union, proclaims, “NEA has created a Web site specifically focused on closing the achievement gaps: www.achievementgaps.org.” The document also states (p.2),

The causes of the achievement gaps are multiple and interrelated. They include the effects of poverty, home and community learning opportunities, discrimination, access to health care, and issues of housing and mobility. Education plays an important—but far from solo—role in closing achievement gaps.

What are the achievement gaps? Achievement gaps exist when groups of students with relatively equal ability do not achieve in school at the same levels; in fact, one group often far exceeds the achievement levels of others. Gaps in achievement exist across the nation and can be found based upon race/ethnicity, income levels, language background, disability status, and gender.

The notion of ‘closing achievement gaps’ is monstrous. It implies that turning high achievers into mediocre achievers would be a good thing. The fact that a high-achieving, wealthy, loving parent living in an affluent neighborhood can have a positive effect on his own child is, according to this monstrous notion, a bad thing. Carrying this notion to its logical conclusion, the solution is to take all children away from parents at birth and have them all raised at monolithic, state-run camps.

Obama has explained repeatedly how his policy on education is central to his entire policy on governing. At yesterday evening’s press conference, for instance, he said this:

We have to lay a new foundation for growth, a foundation that will strengthen our economy and help us compete in the 21st century. And that’s exactly what this budget begins to do. It contains new investments in education that will equip our workers with the right skills and training …

Observe where Obama wants to take America. He wants to do more than “spread the wealth around.” He wants to spread the achievement around. For Obama, the problem is not merely than some people have too much wealth, but that some people have earned too much wealth. Ideally, according to Obama, he would not need to redistribute wealth or income; he would not need to enact “tax cuts for working families as opposed to the wealthiest” (as if “the wealthiest” don’t work); ideally, everyone would just turn out to be equally productive. And that ideal is Obama’s goal.

Some might say that the ‘gap closers’ still recognize differences in ability based on genetics from one person to the next. But if one is against differing levels of achievement based on environment, then one should also be against differing levels of achievement based on genetics. And so such differences should be balanced out: a genetically gifted child should be given less beneficial treatment in the state-run camps; the best teachers and most nurturing care-givers should be devoted to the least gifted children.


Obama often says that his economic policy is designed to “level the playing field.” Metaphors from sports applied to politics can be dangerous enough due to vagueness, imprecision, and a basic difference between the fields: sports deal strictly with voluntary associations, while politics deals with coercion. Life is not a game. A ‘level playing field’ is not a good standard for a free society. But Obama’s metaphor is worse than vague and imprecise: it is dishonest.

What about ‘players’ who have a better work ethic than others? What about individuals who choose, every minute of every day, to use their minds, to study, to plan a career, to make their own judgments in doing their jobs, who stand by their own judgments when co-workers are against them, who risk their own time and money on a new business? Where is the judge and jury that investigates these questions before deciding how much money to tax a person, instead of simply assuming that Person A’s wealth compared to Person B’s poverty must be due to differences of race or environment?

Obama does not want to ‘level the playing field’ in any meaningful sense of that vague metaphor. Obama wants to level the scoreboard.

But there is an even better metaphor, in keeping with this notion of ‘closing achievement gaps’. Obama wants to level the players.

As Obama’s educational policy is central to his entire policy of governing, so is his drive to “close achievement gaps”—among children, among Americans, and among nations.