Opportunity First, Then Achievement

How do we close the achievement gap?  The long-term NAEP data released earlier this week clearly demonstrate that we, as a nation, have been unable to make any real inroads at reducing the achievement gaps between minority students and white students.  Despite all our efforts and the best of intentions, the gaps between African-American and white students are as large as they were two decades ago.  The gaps between Hispanic and white students are as large as they were two decades ago.  And one can assume the gaps between low-income and high-income students are as large (or even larger) than they were two decades ago.

Some have looked at the NAEP scores, viewing them as a mantra from heaven.  Forget the gaps, they say, we need to focus on a rising tide that has lifted all boats.  Eduflack is the first to acknowledge that, as a nation, we made improvements, particularly in reading instruction.  And we did see upticks for all disaggregated groups.  A definite plus, particularly in an era where so many have questioned our focus on student achievement and evidence-based standards.
But there is no shaking the fact that the achievement gap is very, very real.  It is public enemy number one for our public schools.  If white students are outperforming minority students by 20, 30, or 50 points on standardized math or reading exams, that is a real problem.  All of the interventions, policies, and standards in the world mean very little if we can’t get all students up to a common level.  We cannot guarantee all students equal pathways to success as long as we are posting significant gaps in student learning and achievement.
Over the last few months, the education community has been focused on the notions of improvement and innovation.  In many ways, such concepts are step three in the education continuum.  Step two, leading to such innovation, is student achievement.  To get there, our first step must be one of opportunity, ensuring every student has access to the learning opportunities and resources that are necessary to moving down the pathways of success.
This AM, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released national data for its Opportunity to Learn Resource Index (OTLRI), a data-based tool designed to evaluate students’ access to such educational resources and opportunities.  Schott will be releasing state-by-state educational opportunity numbers next month, but the national numbers are just as frightening as the recent NAEP data:
Specifically, Schott found:
* Black students only have a 47 percent “opportunity to learn,” and Latino and low-income students only have a 53 percent “opportunity to learn,” compared to white, non-Latino students
* Only 15 percent of Black students are currently in well-resourced, high-performing schools, while 42 percent are in poorly resourced, low-performing schools
* Latino, American Indian, and low-income students attend poorly resourced, low-performing schools at similar percentages as Black students
* The average White, non-Latino student is twice as likely to be in a well-resourced, high-performing school
Why are these numbers so important?  We simply cannot close the achievement gap if we aren’t adequately resourcing those students on the losing end of the gap.  We can’t expect African-American and Hispanic students to pull themselves closer to their white counterparts if they are being asked to do more and more in poorly resourced, low-performing schools.  We can’t provide all students the promise of equal paths of success when white students are twice as likely to attend a well-equipped school than minority students.  
Full disclosure, Eduflack has been working with the Schott Foundation on early strategic efforts for its Opportunity to Learn Initiative, of which OTLRI is a centerpiece.  But I am involved in such issues because it becomes very personal for me.  Loyal readers know that, at the end of the day, it all comes back to family for me.  My views on education improvement are rooted in my experiences growing up in an education household, son of a college president and a high school English teacher.  It is rooted in the realization that my maternal grandfather was a high school dropout, who never saw the value of formal education, but who worked his tail off for nearly 40 years to raise a family of five children.  And it is rooted in knowing where my own children come from, and the paths that were almost taken for them.
Two days ago, my son celebrated his third birthday.  Miggy was born in Guatemala to a single mother with no formal education and an absence of basic literacy skills.  She put Miggy up for adoption a day after he was born, hoping for a better life for him, one where he could access a full spectrum of opportunities and could fulfill his true potential.  Last fall, Miggy’s full birth sister joined our family.  Now 19 months old, Anna Patricia entered this country just like her brother.  Both were immigrants in search of a better life.  And although Miggy came to the United States at seven months old and Anna at 13 months old, both are ESL children. 
Their story is not unlike a growing number of 21st century Americans.  As their father, I know I can provide them the educational (and other) opportunities that they may not have received otherwise.  They’ll get the formal early childhood education programs necessary to be fully prepared for the K-12 experience.  They will attend public schools in one of the finest school districts in the nation, gaining access to highly qualified and effective teachers and classrooms that are properly supported and resourced.  They will participate in a rigorous college prep curriculum (our district uses I, and they will have access to high-quality postsecondary options.  Miggy and my princesa will be provided every opportunity to learn, and if they don’t I will raise holy hell to ensure that any barriers are removed.
But I look at the Schott numbers and know my two children are the exception, not the rule.  Their fellow Hispanic students will have half the chance to access true learning opportunities than they do.  Hopefully, they will be at the top of the curve on the achievement gap, posting achievement numbers that can help close the Hispanic-white achievement gap.  They will demonstrate academic proficiency early on, and will never look back.  They will avoid the drop-out factories, and will never see dropping out of high school as a viable option (as my grandfather did).  They will be provided every opportunity to learn.
Our national goal is every student achieving and every student succeeding.  We want every student reading and math proficient by fourth grade, every student graduating from high school, and every child pursuing some form of postsecondary education.  It doesn’t matter their race, family education level, or family income level.  That is our goal for each and every child.  That is why we are growing closer and closer to the notion of a high-quality education being a right, and not a merely wish.
But we can’t achieve that goal until every child is provided an equal opportunity to learn.  And that opportunity cannot be the lowest common denominator.  Every student needs access to real, demonstrable educational resources.  Every student needs access to effective, well-trained teachers.  Every student needs pathways to the future.  Every child needs the sort of opportunities that Miggy and Anna will now have.
Until we can get to that stage, we can never close the achievement gap, and we can never eliminate the battle between the haves and have nots in public education.  Half a chance is not a chance.
 Fifty percent opportunity is not an opportunity.  And true achievement and innovation cannot occur without equal access to real, measurable resources and opportunities.  I know that is true for my two children, and I know it is fact for each and every child attending public schools in the United States, particularly for those for whom a strong education is their only chance at real success and real choice.

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