Achievement Gap, Part 3: Mission Impossible?

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Editor’s note: In the past two parts of this series, we examined the differences in achievement at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Here we take a deeper look at the causes and solutions for the gap.

No one in the country has a comprehensive solution for closing achievement gaps. Yet, last week, the school board approved a new strategic plan that states in part, “academic achievement gaps can and will be eliminated.”

In the early 2000s, Wake was often considered at the forefront of eliminating gaps, largely due to efforts layered on top of the former diversity policy. Today, the district is experimenting with new solutions.

The Renaissance Schools program was the most successful last year. It funneled $1 million of extra federal money into each of five high-poverty elementary schools to pay for teacher bonuses, innovative programs and equipment.

Some of those schools saw very strong gains for traditionally vulnerable groups, but critics question the sustainability of putting extra money into high-poverty schools.

Saturday tutorials, longer school days, math and literacy coaches, an effective teaching taskforce, and targeted teaching and assessments are just a few of the other initiatives in the ether.

“No matter what you do, you’re not going to find a smoking gun,” said Michael Maher with NC State University’s College of Education.

Indeed, the Record’s investigation uncovered endless programs designed to close the achievement gap, and many of them prove extremely effective.

But frequently the themes that emerge for closing the gap are intangible: getting community buy-in, changing systemic culture and a clear, goal-oriented focus.

“When you pull the culture together, the resources, the expectations and you do the planning,” said Superintendent Tony Tata, “you begin to get momentum in the right direction.”

Under the current rate of momentum, it could take 15 years to eliminate the proficiency gaps between economically disadvantaged and economically stable students in elementary and middle school. In high school, where economically disadvantaged students spiked in growth last year, it could take just six.

[media-credit name=”Karen Tam” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Karen Tam

Students stand outside Southeast Raleigh High school, where the achievement gap has closed in recent years.

Cause and Effect
“Let’s think about the achievement gap in terms of what causes it,” Maher said.

Student turnover rate, the racial and socioeconomic makeup of a school, and lack of access to good teachers, enriching activities, and pre-kindergarten education are just a few of the things Maher said tend to exacerbate the gap.

“Part of it is just the culture created at home,” said Paige Elliot, a member of Wake’s newly formed Effective Teaching Framework Taskforce.

Elliot is entering her first year as an assistant principal and has spent the past 15 years teaching English.

“In some homes education is not emphasized as much as in others,” she said. “If you’ve never been rewarded for learning, you may not realize it’s working for you.”

Elliot also emphasizes that much of the achievement gap, in her experience, is related to the financial and personal burdens families face.

Ultimately, she stresses that each child is different, and understanding those differences is the key to helping children succeed.

“The first thing is building relationships. It’s not very measurable, but something that’s so important: getting to know students’ strengths, weaknesses, their home life, what they enjoy, don’t enjoy,” she said.

Both Elliot and Maher, himself a former teacher, believe the gap can ultimately be closed.

“What kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t?” Elliot said.

Of all the ways to deal with the gap, differentiated instruction, Elliott said, is one of the most successful. Essentially, it means teaching to different types of learners in a single classroom.

It can often mean different lesson plans and different tests for different children, Elliot said, because each has a different understanding of the world.

“I’m not saying it’s not a lot of work and it’s not frustrating,” she said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work.”

Often, teachers might have a lesson plan they’re very comfortable with and that works well with certain students, but not with everybody.

Elliott, who was Wake County teacher of the year in 2007-08 and won the same award at the state level the next year, differentiated her teaching early in her career. But the method is only now coming to be common practice in Wake County, school officials said.

Assessments are also getting better and more frequent, said Pam Kinsey-Barker, an Area Superintendent who has worked for Wake schools in various capacities since the ’90s.

“We have evolved to even more sophisticated data collection,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “We very closely monitor all subgroups.”

As they monitor subgroups, teams of teachers called professional learning teams come up with solutions for reaching students who aren’t learning certain material.

And this leads to the next step in closing the gap: “a tremendous focus on monitoring and interventions,” Kinsey-Barker said.

But if these strategies are effective and truly becoming the rule, not just the exception for extraordinary teachers, why does the achievement gap barely seem to budge?

Internal school system reporting as well as that done by the Record shows that until last year, the achievement gap remained stagnant for some time.

During that same time, the school system has also experienced many changes.

Intense growth, budget cuts, larger class sizes and layoffs from central office and clerical staff down to teacher assistants are some of those that can be quantified.

“The stuff that is on Tony Tata’s plate is unprecedented,” former Wake superintendent Bill McNeal told the Record in an interview earlier this month.

McNeal said it’s unfair to second-guess someone in Tata’s position, especially when, like McNeal, you know what Tata is going through.

“He is trying to make decisions about, ‘How am I going to house these kids? How am I going to satisfy all the requirements and requests of the community? How can I make certain that every school is a great school? How do I make certain that every school has effective teachers and effective leaders?’” he said.

McNeal was voted National Superintendent of the Year in 2004-05, largely because he was able to narrow achievement gaps through a five-year plan that sought to bring 95 percent of all children up to proficiency in reading and math.

He credits the success of the plan which didn’t quite reach the 95 percent mark to first generating internal support, second getting community buy-in and finally a laser-like focus on the goal.

“One goal. No foolin’ around,” McNeal said.

He was fooling around so little that he tied his and other administrators’ salaries to hitting the benchmarks.

But that was then. If Wake County’s current climate can be defined by one quality it’s turmoil, not unity.

While all parties claim to agree on the goal of having all children succeed, the questions of how to get there and how much it costs have stolen the spotlight.

“I think the question is, what does the community want?” McNeal said. “And then given what the community wants, what is the community willing to pay for?”

We’ll take a closer look at the five-year plan as our series continues next week.


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