Education Equality and Opportunity Now!

Last week, Eduflack had a Commentary piece on Education News on education equity.  Unfortunately, the link to the piece seems to have disappeared into the online ether.  But I wanted to share the piece, nonetheless.  So without further ado …

Aside from those who are polishing up their
“Status Quoer of the Year” trophies, most within the education sector recognize
that the future of public education has never been as intertwined with the
future of our economy as it is today. 
The school improvements sought by the American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act (ARRA) and those long funded by groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation are not simply change for change sake.  They are specific actions designed to make our P-12 systems
more relevant to life after school, ensuring that more students see the career
options before them and possess the knowledgebase and skills necessary to
achieve in a 21st century workforce.


Education, or at least effective education, does
not happen in a vacuum. 
Improvement efforts must be tied to outcomes and to real-life
expectations.  That’s why we no
longer teach our children Sanskrit. 
It’s why typing has given way to keyboarding.  And it is why language instruction in Latin and Italian has
given way to greater emphasis on the teaching of Spanish, Chinese, and even
Hmong.  We do not, cannot, and
should not reform simply for reforms’ sake.  We need to ensure that changes are relevant to future
educational and career paths.


Yet even today, there are those who fail to see
the connections.  In recent years,
I’ve held focus groups and discussion sessions with teacher educators and
classroom teachers and school board members and policymakers, and some of the
comments were frightening.  Many
believe the quality of education in the United States is stronger today than it
has ever been.  Instruction has
never been more effective.  And
some believe achievement gaps and drop-out rates are simply urban legends, designed
to spur changes that are unnecessary and undermine the great work being done by
the system, overlooking that “the system” has nearly half of minority students
are dropping out of high school and where only a third of today’s ninth graders
will go on to postsecondary education.


For these doubting Thomases and the defenders of
the status quo, the recent data released by McKinsey & Company crosswalking
the achievement gap in our schools with the financial shortfalls of our economy
is downright startling.  McKinsey’s
April 2009 report, The Economic Impact of
the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools
, paints a bleak picture of the
very real impact of the performance failures in our schools on the future of
our nation.  The student
achievement gap costs our nation $3 billion to $5 billion a day.  The achievement gap between black and
Hispanic students and white students costs us more than half a trillion dollars
a year, or 4 percent of our GFP. 
And the gap between low-income students and the rest can cost us upwards
of $670 billion a year, or 5 percent of GDP. 


Recognizing there are obvious overlaps between
those two disaggregated groups, we know that achievement gap costs us a bare
minimum of $500 billion a year. 
For those clamoring for additional dollars for our public schools,
believing that funding has been the only obstacle to student success, imagine
the impact half a trillion dollars could have on P-12?


Moreover, McKinsey’s data spotlighted the social
impacts of a struggling school system. 
The consulting company boldly proclaimed that data clearly demonstrates
that, as early as the fourth grade, achievement gap indicators demonstrate: 1)
lower rates of high school and college graduation; 2) lower lifetime earnings;
3) poorer health; and 4) higher rates of incarceration.


This data needs to end, once and for all, the
debate on how important student achievement is as an evaluation measure.  In today’s day and age, performance is
king.  Data is the driver.  And quantitative information needs to
rule the roost. 


Like it or not, that means student achievement is
determined by performance on state assessments and on Adequate Yearly Progress
measures.  Until we have national
education standards and national assessments, the state test is our tool.  It is the single measure that helps us
determine student proficiency and allows teachers and families to understand
where their children stand in comparison with others in the class, the school,
and the state.


Now is the not the time for debate about multiple
measures or looking for creative ways to evaluate students on qualitative
factors that cannot be captured on “high-stakes tests.”  The McKinsey data, coupled with the
warning calls and alerts issued for the past 25 years since the issuance of A Nation at Risk make one thing
clear.  The achievement gap is
Public Enemy Number One when it comes to the success of our schools.


Elementary school learning gaps are driven, in
large part, between the reading proficiency differences between low-income and
higher-income students.  Our
national high school crisis is further exacerbated by the irrefutable realities
than half of black and Hispanic students drop out rather than earn a high
school diploma.  And even for those
who enter postsecondary education, high levels of remediation, particularly in
English and math, only further emphasize the differences between the haves and
have nots.


The Education Equality Project has seized on the
McKinsey data, using the most-recent numbers as a beacon to draw attention to
EEP’s overall goal to eliminate the racial and ethnic achievement gap in public
education by working to create and effective school for every child.  Last week, EEP used the opportunity to
address the issue of teacher quality, and the irrefutable linkages between the
effectiveness of teachers and the performance of students.  This is particularly true of students
from historically disadvantaged populations, who are often saddled with
teachers who are unqualified, unprepared, or simply incapable of leading
struggling classrooms and providing the instruction necessary to overcome the
learning gaps identified by McKinsey and others.


The achievement gap is a national disgrace.  There is no question about it.  For the past decade, we have talked ad
naseum about student achievement and the need to reach AYP.  Noble goals, yes.  But in the process, we have neglected
the gaps and let far too many children fall through the cracks.  As a result, the NCLB era is one where
the differences between the haves and have nots continues to grow.  Race is more of an indicator of student
struggles than per capita spending. 
And those students who benefit the most from a meaningful public
education are often the last to actually receive it.


But it begs a larger question.  Can we truly close the achievement gap
before we have addressed the issues of equity and opportunity?  Can historically disadvantaged students
narrow the learning gap if they are not provided equal access to high-quality
learning opportunities?  Can we
improve the quality and impact of our public education system by simply
defining resources and equity by dollar signs, without factoring in quality and


The answer to all of the above questions is
obviously no.  The achievement gap
cannot be closed simply through rhetoric and pleasant dreams of lollipops and
rainbows.  It requires serious
investment in real solutions.  It
requires rocking the boat, doing things differently, and holding our states,
our schools, and our teachers to high expectations with high consequences.  It requires refusing to buy into the
status quo, and accept that the paths of the past have gotten us into the
crisis of the present.


So where do we go?  We need qualified, effective teachers in the classroom, and
we need to quantify their effectiveness. 
We need to demand equitable instructional resources for our schools,
ensuring that equity is measured at the highest points of the scale, and not by
dropping to the lowest common denominator.  We need greater accountability in the schools, both for
instruction and for how we utilize our education resources (particularly new
ARRA dollars) and ensure that such money is reaching those students most in
need.  We need to involve parents,
families, and the community in the school improvement process.  We need to ensure that those students
on the failing end of the achievement gap are given new access to the very best
instruction, from early childhood education to college prep curricula.  We need to collectively demand more
from our schools, and settle for no less. 
And we need to keep up the fight until both the opportunity and the
achievement gaps are things of the past, joining the phoenix and the unicorn as
mythical beasts of the past, never to be seen again.


We must also recognize we have no choice in the
matter.  As McKinsey has made
crystal clear, the stakes are simply too high for us to be content with the way
things are.  The achievement gap is
downright destroying the quality of our public schools, the impact of public
instruction, and the future of our economy.  To borrow from a mentor of mine, failure to act, knowing
what we know, is committing educational malpractice.  If education is indeed our next great civil right, now is
the time for our great march on Washington and now is the time for us to truly
act on our dream.


Next month, we celebrate the 55th
anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board decision, integrating our public
schools and offering the promise of equity and opportunity all U.S.
Students.  More than a half century
later, we still have many, many miles to go before the intent of that decision
becomes a reality in our inner-city and low-income schools.  What exactly are we waiting for?

Guaranteeing a High School Diploma

Many will say that a high school diploma simply isn’t worth what it was a half-century ago, or even a decade ago.  That may be true, but in this day and age, shouldn’t we offer some sort of guarantee as to what a high school diploma really stands for?  Shouldn’t an employer be assured that a high school graduate possesses a finite skill set and is holds competencies in core subjects?  Shouldn’t an institution of higher education trust that a high school graduate doesn’t require massive amounts of remediation?

If you answered yes to any of these (or a strong no, for that matter), check out my latest column over at Education News.  This morning, I discuss how we need to begin guaranteeing the value of a high school diploma if we are to retain their value in our education system and our economy.

Throwin’ Down on Teachers and School Models

Two interesting news items this morning, showing that what was once old may be new again.  The first the debate over traditional versus alternative teachers, the second on the role of small schools.

Issue One: Up in Boston, the Boston Teachers Union has firmly planted its flag in the sand, hoping to block an influx of new Teach for America educators this fall.  Citing planned cutbacks in the Boston Public Schools and a “surplus” of existing “good” teachers, the BTU is taking its fight to the streets, hoping to keep 20 new TFAers from arriving in Beantown this fall.  The full story is here, in the Boston Globe.
What’s interesting is that TFA seems to be taking the position that it is a public service organization, much along the lines of the Peace Corps or Americorps (something that Bostonians know a thing or two about).  Eduflack doesn’t doubt that many TFAers enroll in the program because they believe they are giving back to the community and performing a public service by going to into urban or rural schools that are having a dickens of a time staffing their classrooms.  But the BTU has a point here.  Is it really public service and volunteerism at its best when a TFA teacher in Boston is making the same starting salary as a beginning teacher in the district (about $46K)?  If Boston were paying TFAers the hourly wage that Americorps members are getting, we are having a different rhetorical fight.  But we are putting each pool of educators on equal footing, at least financially.
Seems to me that if Boston does indeed have this surplus of hundreds of good teachers without current jobs (not something I would be bragging about, but that’s just me) the focus then should be on quality and effectiveness.  Why bring in a TFAer for two years when you can tap the best of the current surplus pool, teachers who may already have a track record of delivering student achievement results in Boston and teachers who are prepared to make a commitment for more than two years?  Do we want surplus teachers or do we want proven-effective teachers who are prepared to make a long-term commitment to closing the achievement gap and boosting student performance?  When caged that way, the answer seems simple (particularly since we are waging this rhetorical war over 20 TFAers).  Part of TFA’s mission is staffing those hard-to-serve schools.  If we have qualified teachers lined up around Fenway Park to serve from Southie to the North End, seems they warrant an equal chance for those 20 available slots.
Issue Two: Back in America’s heartland, Chad Wick, the CEO of KnowledgeWorks Foundation, makes a strong case for the notion that small schools work.  His commentary can be found here at Education News.  This is a bold statement to make, particularly since so many people believe that the Gates Foundation disowned the notion of small schools this past fall.  But if you look at what Bill Gates said back in November, and you look at what Wick says today, they are marching in lockstep.  Those who think we are going to improve the schools simply by changing the structure and implementing a small school model are fooling themselves.  But changing the structure is an important first step to school improvement, particularly if you use the new model to create new learning opportunities for students, offer better supports and PD for teachers, and generally refuse to toe the status quo line.
Having worked with Wick and the good folks at KnowledgeWorks, they seem to know what they are talking about.  They can point to their efforts with the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative and Early College High Schools as examples where the small school structure opened the door to improvement.  They used the new structure to close the achievement gap and improve high school graduation rates.  Seems a model example of using the process (school structure) to actually generate some measurable results.  Isn’t that a novel concept, particularly in this era of innovation.

Redefining Education Innovation

Without doubt, the hot buzzword in the current era of education improvement is “innovation.”  We hear it on almost a daily basis for the EdSec and from every state, school district, advocacy organization, and corporation looking to take full advantage of the opportunities made available through new economic stimulus funding.

Check out Eduflack’s latest commentary on Education News about innovation and how we should define it in this new post-NCLB era.  The full article can be found here.  Lots to think about as we try to ride the “innovation” wave while making a demonstrable difference when it coms to school improvement and student achievement.