Friday, December 01, 2006

The achievement gap

From California Educator: CTA
Teachers at Mathson Middle School in San Jose are making a concerted effort to push students to work beyond their comfort levels. The use of incentives has helped improve both the behavior and the academic performance of students, says math teacher Raul De La Selva.
It’s been more than 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court tried to eliminate inequities in public education. For a time, significant progress was made. In the 1970s and ’80s, the achievement gap between African American and white students narrowed by more than half in reading and close to that in math. But in the 1990s the gap began to widen again. Studies show that the gap in NAEP test scores is now approximately 10 points wider — about a year’s worth of learning — than it was 10 years ago.

While there are no similar studies for the progress of Hispanic students over the past three decades, there’s no shortage of indicators that the gap exists.

The past school year was the first year that students had to pass the California High School Exit Exam to receive a diploma. Approximately 91 percent of the state’s seniors had passed both sections of the test by July, but a demographic breakdown by the California Department of Education reveals that 97 percent of white students and 95 percent of Asian students passed the test, compared with 86 percent of poor students, 86 percent of Hispanics, 84 percent of African Americans and 76 percent of English language learners.

Similarly, the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting Program (STAR) indicates that students are showing progress at almost every grade level, and are performing at the highest levels since the program began almost a decade ago. Nevertheless, the achievement gap has either remained the same or widened over the past four years at most grade levels. In English-language arts, African American, Latino and poor students remain at “below basic” or “far below basic” levels at three times the rate of white, Asian and affluent students; and affluent students are twice as likely as low-income students to reach proficiency. In math, white and Asian students are twice as likely to be proficient as Latino and African American fourth-graders; poor students are almost three times as likely to score “below basic” as affluent students.

California’s graduation rate is 87 percent for 2004-05, according to an analysis of California Department of Education statistics. But when the numbers are broken out by ethnic group, a sizable gap is revealed with 90 to 93 percent of Asians, Filipinos and whites graduating compared with 81 to 83 percent of Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans.

The gap is even more evident when the number of graduates is compared with the number of ninth-graders enrolled four years earlier. The overall graduation rate of 71 percent breaks down to 90 percent for Asians and Filipinos, 79 percent for whites, 70 percent for Pacific Islanders, 64 percent for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and 61 percent for Latinos and African Americans.

According to Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, 92 percent of African American males in California prisons have not received a high school diploma, and of those 73 percent are functional illiterates.

Research by the Urban Institute shows that six of the state’s 10 largest school districts — Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento City and San Bernardino — graduate fewer than half of their Latino students.

The reasons certain groups of students underperform are multiple and interrelated. They include the effects of poverty, home and community learning, unequal opportunities, discrimination, access to health care, and issues of housing and mobility.

“The persistence of wide disparities in achievement that correspond with the race and class backgrounds of students serves as a reminder that America remains a deeply divided nation, a place where the lines separating the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ are manifest in every facet of our lives,” says Pedro No-guera, co-editor of Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools.

“Americans are very content to accept poverty and say, ‘We can’t do anything about that’ — just like global warming.” But by blaming poverty, “the result is often no action.”

He believes blaming the achievement gap on poverty is more palatable than blaming racism. “However, I point out to people that the achievement gap has a lot to do with institutional racism,” says Noguera, whose book examines the results of a six-year research and organizing project to address racial disparities at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, illuminating the challenges in overcoming the current inequities in public education.

He believes that many communities have taken the wrong approach to closing the gap. “The assumption was that we’d get poor black kids into well-funded white schools, and they would get a better education. But in many cases the schools became segregated from within. The poor kids were put in remedial classes, which are not the track that leads to college.”

Education researcher Jonathan Kozol, author of The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, correlates the widening of the achievement gap with the resegregation of schools in recent years. The best hope for the future, he says, lies in schools that are making “conscientious efforts to appeal to a diversity of students rather than permit themselves to reproduce or to intensify the pre-existing isolation of their student populations.”

“Most willing schools can be helped to improve student achievement, but closing the achievement gap is a more difficult proposition,” says Fred Tempes, director of WestEd’s Comprehensive School Assistance Program. “It’s a bigger mountain than most people realize. Demographics aren’t necessarily destiny, but demographics present challenges.”

“We have the knowledge to close the achievement gap, but it’s really a question of political will,” says Tempes. Political will means giving lower-decile schools “substantially more money and resources.” And doing so, he predicts, will make some cry foul. But the traditional meaning of fairness in America, which is giving everyone the same, won’t get the job done.

“We can’t be fair in the traditional sense, because we have to level a very slanted playing field. If you really want to close the achievement gap, you have to do things like lengthen the school year from 180 days to 220 days. You’re going to have to lengthen the school day in some schools and reduce class size in others. You’re going to have to provide preschool, tutoring and after-school support. It’s a tough road, but we can do it if we want to do it.”

While these investments may be costly, not making them may be the costliest option of all, says Tempes. “If we don’t make this investment, the implications might be a two-tiered society where the people who make lots of money live in a gated community, and everyone else is riding the bus and working for minimum wage. It’s not the best recipe for a stable democracy.”

Tempes believes the $3 billion settlement worked out between CTA and the governor to help decile 1 and 2 schools will definitely make progress toward closing the gap. “It’s a significant amount of money for a significant amount of time — seven years,” he says. “It’s one of the best shots we’ve had, in my experience.”

Schools that have made significant progress in closing the achievement gap share common characteristics, according to the EdSource report “Similar Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better?” They include:

Effective school site leadership and a shared vision between administration and teachers that promotes a collaborative working relationship.
A coherent, challenging, rigorous, standards-based instructional program.
An emphasis on using data assessment to improve student achievement andinstruction.
A culture of high expectations where no one makes excuses for students.
Good availability of instructional resources, including qualified teachers, decent facilities and adequate textbooks.
Time set aside for teacher collaboration and professional development, which is considered the key to changing classroom practice.
Increased parent involvement and support for parents and families.
The availability of preschool and full-day kindergarten.
Early intervention for children in academics, health and socialization.
Extra instruction for students as needed, either during the regular school day, after school or on Saturday.

“Schools that close the achievement gaps focus on improving learning for all students, maintain a ‘no excuses’ attitude, use research and data to improve practice, involve everyone in improvement processes, persist through difficulties and setbacks, and celebrate accomplishments,” says an NEA report, “Closing Achievement Gaps: An Association Guide.”

“If we have learned anything over the years, it is how much teachers matter,” says The Education Trust in its report “African American Achievement in America.”

“On this point the research is unequivocal: the teacher is the single most important factor” in determining whether students learn or not.

Teachers at Mathson Middle School want students like Tyomi Howard and Soneer Sainion to succeed, but they won’t make excuses for them if they have problems keeping up.
Studies show that schools in high-poverty urban areas with large minority enrollments tend to have the least experienced teachers. Reseachers at the Santa Cruz-based Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning found that poor, high-minority urban schools have less access to teachers with the appropriate qualifications than affluent, suburban schools. This correlates with a pervasive “spending gap” between the high-poverty and lowest-poverty schools within the state.

“We’ve got to make low-performing schools places where teachers want to teach,” says CTA
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