Thursday, January 04, 2007

Closing the Achivement Gap

The "Achivement Gap" is a phrase heard everywhere in discussions about public education. But what does it really mean? And what can school systems do to decrease it? I started taking a class last night focusing on this issue and learned that there are two different meanings for this politically and emotionally loaded phrase. 1) The gap between test scores of students grouped by race and/or income; and 2) The gap between overall student achievement and standards.

These two definitions for the "achievement gap" could potentially suggest different solutions. I like the second definition because it focuses on improving teaching and learning for all students who aren't meeting standards. Anitra Pinchback-Jones, an assistant high school principal and former teacher at the African American Academy, said in a Seattle Times article last fall that "I'm more than confident that if we have the right environment, leadership, highly skilled teachers, connections with the families, instructional material that is very excellent, every child — black, white, Asian — every ethnicity, will be able to succeed in our Seattle public schools." In my opinion, that should be the vision we are striving for --- success for all regardless of rcae and ethnicity.

Of course, the second definition of the "achievement gap" also raises the issue of whether or not we have identified the correct standards. And both definitions depend upon results generated by assessment tools which may be problematic.

One of the five goals of the Seattle School Board is to "Eliminate the achievement gap." And, to their credit, they actually define what they mean by the phrase:
Achievement Gap (disproportionality) – The disproportionate under representation of non-white students among those who are meeting academic standards, which is reflected statistically as a “gap” between white and non-white student outcomes in comparative achievement data.

Below are some recent articles and videos about Seattle Public Schools and efforts to close the "achievement gap."


Anonymous said...

There's an op-ed piece in today's Times about pre-school education and readiness for kindergarten being probably the most vital point for kids. I would agree. I recall sending my first son to kindergarten. He was reading at about a second grade level by then. Parent volunteers helped test kids to see what their readiness was. I had one child who didn't know the 7 colors of crayons in the box! I was probably naive but it wasn't reading or knowing letters but just simple colors. If a child starts that far behind, I have to wonder how hard it becomes at every grade level to catch up.

I know tht the literacy rate in our country is high so I am sometimes puzzled why more children don't come to school more ready to learn. Reading to a child is fairly easy and, at least in this city, you can't throw a rock and not hit a library.

I do know from past experience that immigrant children would have a greater difficulty beyond the language barriers. In many countries, teachers do not want parents to teach their children to read before school because the school system has a preferred method to teach reading.

I had an experience over the holidays with this issue. I was manning a holiday gift giveaway for needy families and a mom from India and her little girl (about 3) showed up, thinking it was storytime. The director told her not today but I said I would read to her anyway. The mom was following along as much as the daughter and I realized she was trying to learn English as well. It was such a little thing but it seemed to mean so much to her.

So what do we do with older students? Well, there's an experiment in progress at New School with trying to have a longer school year, extra tutoring and extra teachers. The school was started in 2002 and has now reached having a 4th grade (they want to be preK-8) and their 4th graders will take the WASL. The district is also trying Flight Schools, partnering schools together and making home visits before school starts. So will all this extra money and attention pay off? We will see. I think the effort is worth it but I think one teacher in the Times article said it best; it's just hard work.

One last thing is that it cannot be all about what happens at school. Teachers cannot be a child's only teacher. Parents have to support what is going on in class. It's the only way the gap will close.

Charlie Mas said...

I have been active in Seattle school district issues for over five years. For all of that time the District's stated number one goal and priority has been to close the academic achievement gap by bringing every student up to standard. Yet for all of that time there has been embarassingly little progress towards that goal. I think it is because for all of that time the District has neglected to develop and implement a plan that could be reasonably expected to achieve that goal.

The District has done a couple of things here and there, but there is no concentrated, systematic effort. There is no attempt outside of what has always been done and has never worked. Most of the efforts have been either along the lines of Courageous Conversations - which don't bring any students up to Standards - or additional education for teachers. What has been noticably absent is additional education for students. What has been noticably absent is any sort of remedial work or intervention prior to high school. What has been noticably absent is an end to social promotion.

The District STILL has students entering high school with third grade reading skills because the District STILL promotes those students despite the fact that they don't meet the grade level Standards. The District STILL fails to step in and provide those students with the additional help they need to bring them up to the Standards.

The District's lip service to this urgent and crtical need is, by far, the greatest negative to their credibility and the perception of their effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a whole lot of ways that kids can fail in school, and if you want to know what the *school* can do about it, it might be more useful for policymaking to look at those whom the school is most likely to have failed. That's not necessarily the kids way at the bottom, who may never have had a chance to begin with, but the kids who came in reasonably prepared to learn, and *then* fell through the cracks. I'm convinced there must be an awful lot of those, looking at the WASL failure rates.

In the same way, if you're looking at helping people get out of poverty, and specifically at finding ways to reform society so that people aren't so likely to become or stay poor, you're not going to focus *all* your attention on the desperately poor. You'll spend a lot of time looking at how to improve conditions for the working poor. I don't mean that you don't care about people who are starving, or that you don't fund shelters or whatever, but you don't *just* fund shelters and then expect everyone who isn't in one to be prosperous.

I'm all for kindergarten readiness, and I'm all for more parent involvement, and I'm happy if those factors change for the better. I would just like to see some data on how *schools* might need to change. The Wrightslaw article Dorothy posted on another thread is relevant here.

Helen Schinske

Michael Rice said...


I teach math at Rainier Beach and in his post, Mr. Mas wrote:

The District STILL has students entering high school with third grade reading skills because the District STILL promotes those students despite the fact that they don't meet the grade level Standards. The District STILL fails to step in and provide those students with the additional help they need to bring them up to the Standards.

I see this every day. Not so much in reading, but in my students lack of basic number sense. It is darn near impossible to have my students ready for the WASL, when they are sent to me without knowing (as an example) that 1/2, .5 and 50% are the same thing.

My students then get massively offended when I tell them that when they fail Algebra 1, they are not going to Algebra 2, they are going to Pre Algebra. It seems like it is the first time they have ever been held accountable for their failure to perform in the classroom.

The best way to help close the achivement gap, is to stop promoting students who are not ready for the next level of school work. There is no shame in this. The shame comes when these students get to high school, can't do the work that is required of them and then drop out.

Anonymous said...

Beth, thanks so much for bringing this up. "Closing the achievement gap" seems so important to so many and yet it is so seemingly nebulous and poorly thought-out. As a quick point, one easy and very effective way to reduce the first type of achievement gap would be to stop teaching the students that are of the race/income groups that are disproportionably favored. Lower the top and he gap is reduced! Obviously, no one is favoring such a dramatic move, but it illustrates the real question - how much are we willing to "favor" the poorer performing groups ("non-white" students in SPS language) over the other students. How much more money, time, or other resources should we be willing to focus on these underperforming groups? It seems like it will take a huge amount. Many of the non-white dominated schools in my area of town receive about 2 times the dollars per student than the schools with greater populations of white students. Clearly, this amount of money does not seem to be enough since the achievement gap isnt closing. Should we change it to 3 times? Four? How far do we go?

Anonymous said...

"One last thing is that it cannot be all about what happens at school. Teachers cannot be a child's only teacher. Parents have to support what is going on in class. It's the only way the gap will close."

This quote, from Ms.Westbrook's comments above, is so right on. It has to be about what is happening at home. More often than not, when a child is not achieving, if there is not a learning disability or some other disability hampering achievement efforts, there are issues at home. When I was teaching, I had low achieving students who played video games all day at home and/or never read a book nor had anyone read to them as babies or preschoolers. They may have gone to preschool, but it was not high quality. Or, the did not go at all. No one played learning games with them or took them places that encouraging thinking like music performances or museums. Man of these kids were ESL kids but not all. There is a correlation between achievement and poverty but it does not always mean that poor children have parents who are working so much they don't have time to read to their kids. It can mean that these parents don't value education and do not (for a variety of reasons) do learning activities with their babies and children. They may also put their children in daycare situations that are not enriching.

I also believe that video games and the plethora of children's television channels and shows distracts children away from learning. It is just too easy to ignore them while they are doing this stuff, rather than read to them.

Early learning has to be the answer and it does not necessarily mean preschool for all. It means parent education. Parent education is the key. Ask any teacher what they want from parents and they want more support and more help from home in educating kids.

Charlie Mas said...

Here is a recurring frustration of mine. I was at Student Learning Committee meeting on Monday and they were talking, at one point, about changing the school funding formula and getting help to schools with large numbers of students working below grade level.

The talk turned to coaches - math coaches and reading coaches. Don't get your hopes up - the coaches are for the TEACHERS, not the students.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that if we want to improve student achievement we should be coaching the STUDENTS not the TEACHERS.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on personal achivement. It should be very much helpfull

Karim - Creating Power