Some proven education reforms really do help close the achievement gap between children from different economic and ethnic groups.
Every superintendent and school-board member in the nation talks about closing the achievement gap. They would deserve to be fired if that goal were not near the top of the agenda.
But talk is one thing; doing something to make a difference is another matter.
For at least 70 years, the state’s largest school district has been talking about eliminating achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers. Just last week, the Seattle School Board voted to make equity a priority in placement for the highly capable high school program and other advanced classes — for implementation by the 2021-22 school year. What? This should be an urgent matter and a top priority for current students.
Superintendent Larry Nyland has stepped up the district’s equity discussion, but the results are still mixed. As reported recently by The Seattle Times’ Education Lab, the gap between academic achievement of black and white students has actually gotten wider in recent years. In 2016, researchers at Stanford reported black students in Seattle tested three and a half grade levels behind their white peers. In a 2017 update, they found the gap had grown to 3.7 grade levels.
The district notes, however, that graduation rates for students of color have improved, with African-American on-time graduation rates going up from 60 percent in 2014 to 72 percent in 2017.
Closing the achievement gaps between public school children from different ethnic and economic groups is not easy and it isn’t cheap, but proven strategies do make a difference.
The adults at Stanton Academy, a small alternative high school in the Yakima School District, are relentless about keeping track of every student as an individual, working to figure out what each needs to succeed, and then making those things available. They provided parenting classes at the in-school child-care center when students expressed an interest. Vocational learning is emphasized, but at this school where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch and 21 percent are just learning English, college is also encouraged.
The graduation rate at Stanton does not look impressive on paper — 40 percent graduate after 5 years of high school — but to those who know these students and how hard they and their mentor teachers work to get them into a cap and gown, those numbers are amazing. These are the students some schools and some districts give up on, but in Yakima the alternative school’s graduation rate has doubled in the past decade.
The real challenge in closing the achievement gap is mustering enough political will on the school board and in the superintendent’s office to make needed changes, then sticking with those plans even under pressure from parents and the community to spend money in other ways.
Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools, knows what that’s like. When Enfield’s administration decided to change the district’s approach to student discipline — limiting student suspensions and keeping students on campus except when that would jeopardize school safety — they got pushback from parents and teachers.
“You have to be willing to face the controversy, take the hits. That’s part of the price you pay,” Enfield said. She did not take the hits all alone. The school board was with her all the way, with a shared focus on the district’s goals.
Closing achievement gaps is not impossible. Here are a few research-proven strategies to either improve test scores, graduation rates or both.
• High quality — and affordable — early learning. Kids from low-income families who have a rich preschool experience can start school at the same academic place as their peers. Those who start school behind generally stay behind, many studies confirm. Here’s one: University of Chicago and Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found early learning not only helps children succeed in school but also helps move their families up the economic ladder and creates adults who are healthier and more prosperous.
• Diligent attendance policies. Kids learn when they are in school. If they’re not in the classroom almost every day, they will fall behind. Research — most prominently the work of a group called Attendance Works — shows children in the early grades who are chronically absent face huge academic and achievement obstacles. More than 7 million students nationally miss 10 percent or more of days each school year. That can lead to third graders who haven’t mastered reading, sixth graders failing classes and ninth graders dropping out of school, according to research from Attendance Works. Schools need an adult attendance coordinator, making phone calls, visiting homes, finding and overcoming challenges.
• Intensive extra help for struggling children. In Washington, we call this the Learning Assistance Program. Children who are behind their classmates get extra help in small groups or one-on-one. Last year, the Legislature more than doubled the amount of state dollars going into this program. Research shows these students also need to be pushed with high expectations.
• An excellent, well-trained and supported teacher in every classroom. Research shows better teachers get better results. Great teachers can be developed; they do not have to be born great. Two groundbreaking studies, 20 years apart, by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future show high quality teacher training, standards and mentoring help close achievement gaps over time. Washington’s teacher training programs and its Professional Educator Standards Board have already adopted many of these reports’ recommendations. More must be done at the district level.
This is just the start of a much longer, well-known list. All the people who make the decisions at school districts need is the political will. They need to make changes to improve education opportunities for all students now, not by 2021.