Gaps, Equality, and Student Achievement

For nearly a decade now, the buzzword in education reform has been student achievement.  Thanks to NCLB and AYP, we were all about the test scores and whether learners were able to show year-on-year gains, demonstrating that their skills and abilities were improving academic year after academic year.

Often overlooked in our push for improved student achievement has been the student achievement gap.  While we were tracking how students were doing longitudinally, we were missing the boat on the growing performance problems between the haves and the have nots.  How were African-American students measuring up compared to white students?  Hispanic students versus white students?  Native-American students versus white students?  Low-income students versus rich students?
Since the release of A National at Risk two and a half decades ago, we have realized the achievement gap should be a top concern, one that we need to address and, more importantly, one that we need to solve.  Despite improvements in student achievement, performance gaps are still there, still large, and still very much a destructive force in our nation’s public schools.  Yesterday, McKinsey & Company released a new study on the achievement gap, offering up some pretty startling statistics.  According to McKinsey, achievement gap data can predict, as early as the fourth grade, that the achievement gap can result in:
* Lower rates of high school and college graduation;
* Lower lifetime earnings;
* Poorer health; and
* Higher rates of incarceration.
Why is this so important?  First, student achievement is about more than just student test scores.  It has a wholesale and long-term impact on students, families, and the community at large.  McKinsey estimates that the achievement gap between students of color and white students cost the nation upwards of $525 billion in 2008, or 4 percent of our GDP.  For the gap between rich and poor, the cost was upwards of $670 billion, or 5 percent of our GDP.
Such numbers should be unacceptable to a nation that prides itself of the quality of its public education system and the often misguided notion that every child has access to equal opportunities and high-quality chances when it comes to their education and their future.  What is clear is we are not providing all students equal access to meaningful learning opportunities.  Poor students do not have the same learning opportunities and the same resources as rich students.  Black and Hispanic students do not have the same learning opportunities as white students.  Fifty-five years after Brown v. Board, we believe in equal education, but we aren’t delivering on it, particularly when it comes to students in our lowest performing schools and our struggling economic communities.
The McKinsey research was released in conjunction with the Education Equality Project, an effort joining the unlikely bedfellows of NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton.  EEP is looking at a series of issues on how to bring real, measurable equity to our nation’s public schools.  Issue one for EEP is teacher quality.  Their first briefing paper can be found here.  The highlights are not groundbreaking, but remind us of some key issues that school districts — particularly those serving historically disadvantaged populations — must consider when they look at how to improve the quality and outcomes of instruction:
1) Recruit the best possible candidates for teaching jobs;
2) Give aspiring and veteran teachers the right incentives and targeted training to perform well in the classroom;
3) Evaluating teacher performance fairly but rigorously;
4) Dismissing incompetent instructors after they have had an opportunity to improve their performance; and
5) Placing the best teachers where they are needed most.
Off the bat, we should be able to agree to 80 percent of the above recommendations.  Idea number four is likely to cause heartburn and major concern for the teachers unions and many who don’t want to rock the boat too much.  Such ideas, though, force us to look comprehensively at the ways we can address the issues and close the gaps.  They start debates that need to be had.  Will EEP win the day on removing teachers from their duties?  Unlikely.  But raising the subject forces superintendents and policymakers to take a much keener look at how we measure the effectiveness of the teachers entrusted with closing our learning and achievement gaps.
Currently, there are a number of groups and collaborations focusing on issues of access and equity in public education.  Some like to think that groups like EEP and Bigger, Bolder are competing interests.  But can’t we all agree that the achievement gap problem is one that needs lots of great thinkers and lots of new ideas and new approaches?  As long as organizations are out there putting forward ideas, offering new thoughts and new recommendations about how to better spend our current education dollars, how to better measure our effectiveness in the classroom, how to better teach our students, and how to ensure more (and hopefully) all students have access to the same high-quality learning opportunities, aren’t we better off for it?  Doesn’t such civil discourse force us to shake the status quo and start thinking about real solutions that rattle the system yet offer real chances to improve educational opportunities?
EEP will continue to issue recommendations on a series of classroom-based issues for addressing the achievement gap.  They need to.  For those who agree, they need to amplify the voice and move these ideas into action.  For those who disagree, they need to get on their soapboxes and offer better ideas to capture the hearts and minds of the community.  But there is no room for staying silent.  The education, economic, and societal impacts of the achievement gap are simply too great for us to say nothing, do nothing, and expect nothing.  The status quo is no longer an option.  Too many students have dropped out, lost out, and missed out because we have done nothing.  If we are to fulfill our national promise to provide every child with equal, high-quality learning opportunities, we need to act.  And we need to act now.

545 thoughts on “Gaps, Equality, and Student Achievement

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