Closing the Gap

The Education Trust’s recipe for meeting new federal standards on student achievement by CRAIG JERALD AND KATI HAYCOCK

In a field where the rules are always changing, last winter’s passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act might appear to be just another blip on the screen. But don’t be fooled. The new law fundamentally redefines what it takes to be a successful school system, and district leaders would be wise to begin taking steps now to meet the new demands.

The law requires states to separately report school- and district-level test scores for different groups of students, including low-income and minority children. These reports will lift the veil on achievement gaps in many communities that never had to confront them before. States also must begin to hold schools and districts accountable for getting all groups of students on track to reach proficiency on state standards in a dozen years.

The message is clear: You no longer will be judged a successful school system unless you successfully teach all kinds of students.
While such measures will come as no shock in states that already have instituted similar accountability systems, elsewhere the new law will have big consequences for educational leaders in all but the most homogenous and affluent communities. Some suburban schools with “good” average test scores will be shocked to find themselves judged as needing to improve, and leaders in poor urban and rural districts will be under even greater pressure to produce big learning gains.

For many, these new goals will at first feel unfair. But they are achievable. Despite what many administrators learned in graduate school, newer, more sophisticated research shows that it is not just poverty or family background that determines student achievement. What schools do does matter. And across the country, schools with concentrations of poor, African American and Latino students consistently achieve in the top third of their states.
Moving Forward
Here we suggest some productive steps that school district leaders can take to move ahead of the curve in reporting on and closing gaps in achievement between groups.

Before we begin, however, let us be clear about two things.

First, while we are focusing here on steps that district and school leaders can take, that does not mean we believe that it wouldn’t also help if communities and states tackled head-on the many other problems—including inadequate health care, nutrition and housing—that make many young people’s lives so very difficult. These things are important, too.

Second, state policymakers must stop ducking the pervasive inequities in school finance. Our research at the Education Trust shows that in 42 states, districts with the highest child poverty rates receive fewer state and local dollars per student than districts with the lowest poverty rates. The federal government is helping out this year by increasing its contribution and concentrating it more heavily in high-poverty districts. But that doesn’t absolve states of the responsibility to fix their own funding systems.

In the meantime, however, district administrators can get a leg up by taking action on several fronts.

The Bully Pulpit: Take responsibility for raising achievement and closing achievement gaps—in word and deed.

Every superintendent owns a bully pulpit, but many don’t make as effective use of it as they could, especially in helping their systems confront difficult equity issues. That must change. In fact, we can’t think of a time when educational leaders have stood to gain or lose so much ground simply based on how they choose to talk about an issue.

In a study of school districts that successfully responded to disaggregated test scores and accountability in Texas during the 1990s, researchers from the Dana Center at University of Texas at Austin found that how superintendents talked about achievement data was a key catalyst in getting district personnel and community members to respond to the challenge in productive ways.

Rather than trying to explain away low performance and achievement gaps by pointing to poverty, family circumstances or lack of support from social service agencies, superintendents in successful districts began by talking about the school system’s responsibility for student achievement and followed up with concrete actions.

But the bully pulpit can be a lonely place, so superintendents should seek the involvement of other community leaders who have their own megaphones in talking about and responding to achievement gap data. A chorus of voices taking responsibility for the gaps and committing to closing them can help avoid finger-pointing, frustration and futility. And those voices also can lend valuable support down the road when it comes time to press for difficult changes.

When Ohio recently released its first round of school-level test scores for poor and minority youngsters, the mayor of Columbus and the superintendents of 16 school districts in surrounding Franklin County responded together. They convened a countywide “achievement gap summit” to meet with parents and community organizations about what actions could raise student performance and close the gaps.

Of course, actions speak even louder than words. Leaders should back up their rhetoric about outcomes by sharing the data on how educational opportunities are distributed among different groups of students. Are poor and minority students getting their fair share of experienced and well-educated teachers? Are students assigned equitably to college preparatory courses? Such “opportunity gap data” need to be pulled out from the district record-keeping systems in which they are buried, reported publicly and used as the basis for planning and monitoring future progress.

Standards: Use standards to reshape instruction.

Historically, there has been no agreement on what American young people should learn or what kind of work is good enough. These decisions typically have been left to individual schools and teachers.

The result is a system that, by and large, doesn’t ask much of poor and minority students. Our colleagues at the Education Trust have spent most of their time over the past six years working with teachers who are trying to improve the achievement of students in their classrooms. But while we’ve been there, we’ve been looking carefully at what happens in high-poverty classrooms—what assignments teachers give, for example—compared to other classrooms.

We have come away from this experience literally stunned, both by how very few assignments poor children get and by the miserably low level of the few assignments they do get. In high-poverty, urban middle schools, for example, we see an awful lot of coloring, rather than writing or mathematics, assignments. Even at the high school level, it’s not unusual to find such low-level assignments. “Read To Kill a Mockingbird,” says the 11th-grade English teacher, “and when you’re done, create a poster on it.”

Indeed, national data make clear that we expect so little of students in high-poverty schools that we give them A grades for work that would earn a C- or a D+ anyplace else.

Clear and public standards for what students should learn at benchmark grade levels are a critical tool for solving this problem for they are a guide—for teachers, administrators, parents and students themselves—to what knowledge and skills are critical.

But too often the standards simply sit on the shelf collecting dust or serve as a checkoff list for the same old lessons and assignments. School administrators need to work with teachers to develop mechanisms to look not just at student work, but at teacher work—that is, the assignments teachers give. Although student assignments are a major tool in every teacher’s toolbox, they rarely are scrutinized as part of a school system’s internal accountability efforts.

Beyond creating such mechanisms, districts also can help get more consistent teaching by disseminating good units and assignments for common use.

Curriculum: Provide all students with a rigorous curriculum that is carefully and methodically aligned with standards.

Standards won’t make much of a difference if they are not accompanied by a rigorous curriculum that is lined up with the standards. Yet even today, some American young people are taught a rich curriculum aligned with the standards while other students languish in a low-level curriculum that is better aligned with jobs that no longer exist.

While this is often done with the best of intentions, it has disastrous results. While three out of four high school graduates are going on to postsecondary education, fewer than half have completed a college preparatory curriculum. Too many young people end up in remedial classes when they get to college. The more remedial classes they have to take, the more likely they are to drop out.

The new federal law can present a watershed opportunity for sweeping away the remaining barriers to offering a challenging curriculum for all students. We encourage district and school leaders to carefully align their elementary curriculum with state standards and assessments. But please don’t stop there. Rather, we hope more join the growing number of districts, indeed whole states, that are making the college prep curriculum the “default” curriculum for all middle and high school students.

Several years ago, the San Jose, Calif., Unified School District did just that with great results in both college eligibility and test performance. You can challenge the antiquated belief that a rigorous high school curriculum is a reward for previous academic performance, rather than a necessary foundation for future learning in college or on the job.

Time: Find ways to provide extra instruction for students who need it.

Ample evidence now supports the idea that almost all children can achieve at high levels if they are taught at high levels. But it is equally clear that some require more time and more instruction. It won’t do, in other words, just to throw students into a high-level course if they can’t even read the textbook.

One of the most frequent questions we are asked by stressed middle and high school teachers is, “How am I supposed to get my students ready to pass the (fill-in-the blank) grade test when they enter with 3rd-grade reading skills and I have only my 35-minute period a day?”

The answer, of course, is “You can’t.” Rather, especially when they’re behind in foundational skills like reading and mathematics, we need to double or even triple the amount (and quality) of instruction that they get. In other words, if the standards for learning are fixed and firm, time and instructional strategies can’t remain a constant.

District leaders must make aggressive use of test score data and teacher evaluations to identify students who are in danger of failing to meet academic standards, then provide intensive help and extra time to get them back on track. Two of our colleagues, Eleanor Dougherty and Carlton Jordan, are working with teachers in several cities to design a “rapid transit” system that allows students who are behind to get caught up and enrolled in regular and rigorous curriculum as quickly as possible.

There’s no one best way to do this. Some states, such as Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, are providing high-poverty schools extra funds every year to be used to extend instruction in whatever way works best in their community: before school, after school, weekends or summers. In other cases, individual school districts, such as San Diego, are creating more time without additional resources and within the regular school day by doubling or even tripling for low-performing students the amount of instructional time devoted to literacy and mathematics and by training all of their teachers.

Teachers: Find ways to assign the strongest teachers to the students who need them most; get serious about spending professional development dollars more wisely.

Recent research leaves little doubt that teachers are the most important part of the learning equation. Yet poor and minority students are twice as likely to be assigned to classrooms with inexperienced teachers, and courses in high-poverty middle and high schools are much more likely be taught by a teacher who didn’t major in or isn’t certified in the subject area being taught. AASA Executive Director Paul Houston wrote in a recent issue of this magazine, “Assigning beginning teachers to low-income schools is not only unfair to the students, but it is also unfair to those teachers …”

Some communities are taking aggressive actions to reverse these trends:

• New York state does not allow the assignment of unqualified teachers to low-performing schools.

• In Chattanooga, Tenn., civic leaders have enacted a plan to pay substantial bonuses to effective teachers who volunteer to work in the city’s neediest schools. To be eligible, teachers must demonstrate via Tennessee’s value-added system that their students regularly gain at least 115 percent of normal growth.

• Charlotte, N.C., has an incentive plan to draw strong teachers to low-performing schools that couples financial rewards with smaller class sizes.

These inequities also can be approached from another angle. As Houston notes, part of the teacher distribution problem stems from higher staff turnover in high-poverty schools. Most teachers want to be successful and contribute to measurable student learning, but adverse working conditions and inadequate support can make that seem like an overly daunting challenge. District leaders need to expose and target longstanding traditions that make it acceptable to assign the newest teachers to the toughest classrooms and, at the secondary level, to assign them the highest number of preparations or subject areas to prepare for.

Similarly, assigning a secondary teacher to teach a subject in which he or she is not prepared also can make the job a lot harder than it needs to be and often has terrible consequences for students. Richard Ingersoll, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has found compelling evidence that out-of-field teaching isn’t simply due to labor market shortages. Sloppy and careless administrative practices in assigning teachers contribute a lot to the problem as well. Again, district leaders should conduct a thorough review of how teachers are assigned and weed out policies and practices that contribute to out-of-field teaching.

Distribution isn’t the only teacher workforce issue, though. All teachers can benefit from high-quality training and other opportunities to improve their instruction. But too often professional development activities are too scattershot, low quality and unconnected to the curriculum to be of much practical use. Districts can get to the root of the problem by examining how they are spending their current professional development dollars.

Leaders in the Boston Public Schools did just that a few years ago. To their astonishment, that audit revealed they were spending much more than they thought, but the funds were being spent in many ineffective and uncoordinated ways. Their analysis provided a foundation for creating a better districtwide system of supporting teachers.

By eliminating “drive-by” workshops and focusing instead on providing intensive assistance to teachers that is tightly connected to the curriculum they are teaching, districts can dramatically improve the effectiveness of most of their teachers.

Common Sense Agenda
There is, then, no magic formula. Schools that are succeeding with black kids or brown kids or poor kids aren’t doing so by providing them with some weird voodoo education or tons of expensive add-on programs. What they are providing them with, pure and simple, is a good education.

In the end, then, the most critical steps educators can take to close gaps between groups are pretty straightforward. Take responsibility. Use standards as tools. Eliminate watered down curriculum. Provide extra instruction to those who need it. Help teachers grow and assign the best ones where you need them the most.

We can do that.

Craig Jerald is senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, 1725 K St., N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006. E-mail: cjerald@edtrust.org. Kati Haycock is director of the Education Trust.
“A chorus of voices taking responsibility for the gaps and committing to closing them can help avoid finger-pointing, frustration and futility.”

“In high-poverty, urban middle schools, for example, we see an awful lot of coloring, rather than writing or mathematics, assignments.”

“School administrators need to work with teachers to develop mechanisms to look not just at student work, but at teacher work—that is, the assignments teachers give.”