I just added a comment to the thread about the Seattle Speaks event in which I noted that, despite saying that the conversation would focus on student achievement, the bulk of the time was taken up discussing the Strategic Plan - which is a management plan, not an academic plan - and the teacher contract. Neither of these matters has anything more than a peripheral impact on student achievement.
So let's talk about student achievement for real.
In 2010, 83.5% of Seattle Public Schools 10th graders passed the writing portion of the HSPE. 74.4% passed in reading, 46.6% in science, and 44.7% in math. That's for all 10th graders.
Those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch had slightly lower pass rates in writing and reading, 74.8% and 60.3%, and much lower pass rates in science and math, 25.0% and 22.3%.
Here are some numbers you don't often see reported: the pass rates for NON-FRE students: 89.4% in writing, 84.2% in reading, 61.6% in science and 60.4% in math. While these numbers in writing and reading are okay (obviously we would like to see 100% but that may not be a practical goal), it's clear that we are not doing well in science and math even for students who aren't living in poverty. As badly as these students are doing in math and science, that's where the gap is greatest.
The gap - the real gap - is not between FRE students and all students, but between FRE students and NON-FRE students. Those gaps are 14.6 percentage points, 24.0 percentage points, 36.6 percentage points and 38.1 percentage points. These are big, serious gaps.
For those who wonder if poverty or race matters, I offer these results for Black students: 74.9% in writing, 56.3% in reading, 19.5% in science and 12.1% in math. Black students have essentially the same outcomes as FRE students in writing, reading, and science and significantly underperform FRE students in math. That's very, very bad. The gap between Black students and non-Black students are 11.1 percentage points, 23.7 percentage points, 35.3 percentage points and a whopping 42.5 percentage points in math. Even if four times as many Black students in Seattle passed the math portion of the HSPE, they still would not pass as frequently as their non-Black classmates.
So what are we going to do about it?
The District's response has been to send highly skilled people to coach the teachers at schools with high concentrations of low-performing students.
Why? They must believe that these students are performing poorly on the tests because their teachers are so un-skilled. This is consistent with the Education Reform belief that "teacher quality" is the primary determinant of student achievement. If that were true, then the under-performance in the students is attributable to ineffective teachers and the solution would be to improve the teachers. Hence, they send teacher coaches.
On one hand, I think that the District is to be congratulated for their logical consistency. If teacher quality were the determining factor, then coaching the teachers should solve the problem. This is a strange sort of congratulations, though. 18th century doctors believed that disease was due to an imbalance of humors, so they would bleed their patients. That therapy might make sense if they were right about the cause of disease, but they were wrong.
The Education Reformers and the District are wrong. Teacher quality isn't the root cause of this underperformance. Maybe a little (because there are more novice teachers in these schools and novice teachers, in general, aren't as good as experienced teachers, in general), but not to extent that it has this kind of impact. Teacher quality isn't anything like the determinant that the Education Reform movement believes. They are simply wrong about this. The very suggestion is absurd.
As I have suggested before, does anyone believe that the difference in student outcomes between Aki Kurose and Eckstein is due to a difference in teacher quality between the two schools? Does anyone really believe that the schools would swap test scores if they swapped teaching staffs? Really?
Maybe the gap is due to the lack of cultural competency among the teaching staff. If only the Black students had teachers who understood and were fluent with their culture, and had culturally relevent materials then they would blossom and achieve. But we tried that with the African-American Academy. Could there have been a school with a more culturally competent staff? Could there have been a school with more culturally relevent curricula? The student outcomes at the AAA were very very bad. The AAA did not close the gap. Not at all.
The difference between student outcomes is much more likely attributable to economic and cultural factors than anything school-based. I say that because all studies show that half of the gap is present on the first day of kindergarten, that it shrinks during the school year, and that it grows over the summer. School isn't the source of the gap; school is the cure for it.
It is important to understand the root causes of the gap because that's where we are going to find the means to close it. Two students sit next to each other in a classroom, but one passes the MSP and the other doesn't. Why? They each got the same instruction - it's not as if the teacher is whispering the lesson to select students and while refusing to teach the others. So why did some learn it and some didn't? I refuse to believe it has to do with the native talent for learning within the students. The distribution of that talent is essentially the same among classes and cultures. I think the difference comes in preparation. Some students had the foundational education to make sense and make use of the lesson while other students did not. It would be extraordinarily difficult to understand third grade math if you don't know second grade math.
I suspect the layering of learning in math - the need to understand each new concept in series, building on prior knowledge - is the reason that the gap in math is the widest. Because math (and science) require preparation for progress, the less prepared students can't make nearly as much progress as the prepared ones. Reading and writing are single skills. They are accomplished with rising levels of sophistication, but they remain the same fundamental skills. Preparation and prior exposure - except in narrow areas like vocabulary - just doesn't play the same role.
This is why a lot of people no longer refer to the gap as the "academic achievement gap", but as the "opportunity gap".
When the root cause of the problem is exposed in this way the solution becomes obvious: provide the opportunity. In the case of math and science, we need to confirm - absolutely - that students have mastered the foundational skills before advancing to the next layer. In the case of other disciplines we need to provide the opportunities that middle class children get: trips to the library, the zoo, the aquarium, the theater, the concert hall, the beach, the park, the forest, the farm, the sports arena, the mountains, to businesses, to factories, and to other cities. They need exposure to a wider variety of experiences, on horses, on boats, on planes, on skis, on the golf course, on the tennis court, and anywhere else you can think of. They need to be taught how to study, to take notes, and how to think critically. All students need these sorts of things. There are many, however, who aren't getting it outside of school, so the school needs to provide it for them.
Finally, but more than anything else, all students need someone who is interested in their education. Again, if that person isn't at home, then that person needs to be at school.
Is this so hard to figure out? It isn't. But Education Reformers and School Leaders aren't going to be able to see it from looking at the data. They have to look at the students.
Is this so hard to do? Not really. Not if we dare to try. It will mean that some classes will be bigger than others. It does mean that some students will get more services than others. That's the difference between equity and equality.