Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Achievement Gap

The "Achievement Gap" refers to the differences between white children and children of color on measures of academic performance. For example, White children are about twice as likely to score proficiently on reading and math tests, and twice as likely to graduate from high school on time, compared with African-American children.

The gap presents a challenge to our region because children of color constitute a rapidly growing segment of our population; they represent the majority of students in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools. They represent a signficant portion of our future.

The Superintendent of the Saint Paul Schools announced that she wants to close this gap. According to reports appearing in the August 24 Pioneer Press and StarTribune, she intends to develop a plan that will engage the community to work toward equal educational outcomes for all students.

The education achievement gap is not new; it is not local. Wilder Research began formally reporting it in the early 1990s, as did others around the country. It had been identified even before then.

Dan Mueller of Wilder Research outlined a number of strategies that research demonstrates can reduce or eliminate the gap. These include: high quality, center-based preschools; elementary schools that have a strong focus on teaching and learning (minimizing distractions for other purposes, for example); schools that have a rigorous curriculum; schools that align their curriculum and instruction with their assessment process; effective school leadership; strong teacher professional development programs; and others.

Note that income differences do not fully explain the achievement gap; note also that different racial groups tend to score differently. And remember that the numbers are typically averages; within each racial group, you can find students who perform well and students who do not.

The Superintendent intends to create a plan in the coming months. I encourage her to consider both short-term and long-term strategies, as the research suggests. For some students, improvement can likely occur rapidly. Complete closure of the gap, for all students, will take longer.

Saturday's Pioneer Press reported that she will institute new "training" in which "outside consultants" will "observe staff members at work and advise them on areas of potential racial, socio-economic and gender bias." This will start with clerks and the executive team; observations of teachers will not occur at first. Research evidence does not yet exist to indicate that such training will substantially close the gap, but potentially it can begin to enhance the atmosphere of schools and the day-to-day behaviors of front line staff in ways that will foster better learning environments for children of all colors.

Closing the gap will require changes in the cultures of schools, other organizations, the community, and families. It will require joint efforts among many of us in Saint Paul. It will require that we all share responsibility; we will need to move beyond blame and finger-pointing and take special care not to "blame the victim".

If you have looked at the research, you know that elimination of the achievement gap will only occur if our schools change. That will cause stress and discomfort. However, our schools cannot accomplish this alone. We all need to pitch in, and we all might experience some discomfort in the short run.

Are we ready? I think that many of us are. If we pay attention to the evidence on what does work to close the gap, and if we make a steadfast effort, we can succeed to overcome one of the most significant challenges to the future of our region.

(You can learn more about the research on the achievement gap in the paper by Dr. Dan Mueller, "Tackling the Achievement Gap Head On" on the Wilder Research web site.)

No comments: