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Closing education achievement gap: blue-ribbon panel offers blueprint

Better teacher training, accessible early-childhood education, and school-finance reform are key components to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students, says a report.

By Staff writer / February 19, 2013

Principal Scott Steckler, rear, observes fourth-grade teacher Lora Johnson as she works with her students at George Cox Elementary in Gretna, La., in October 2012. A new report recommends better teacher training as a component to closing the achievement gap.

Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune/AP

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Boulder, Colo.

How do you decrease the achievement gap and increase equity – and excellence – in America’s public schools?

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For starters, reform the funding systems that so often mean a child’s access to education is determined by his or her ZIP code. Then elevate and reform the teaching profession, ensure access to high-quality preschool, meet the non-school needs of students from high-poverty communities, and shift the system of educational governance to improve equity.

All big – almost impossibly big – goals.

The Equity and Excellence Commission, which recently released its final report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has already achieved one somewhat remarkable goal: unanimous acceptance of the broad-reaching recommendations that the commission believes could turn around American public education.

Given that the commission members include union leaders; district, state, and federal education officials; civil rights leaders; and top thinkers from all sides of the education-reform debate, that is no small feat.

“This is a call to action that we can and we must and we should do better for our children, and for communities who have historically been denied opportunities … and in doing so, strengthen our country,” said Secretary Duncan, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The report clearly lays out the scope, and importance, of the challenge: Math results that show the average African-American eighth-grader performing at the 19th percentile of white students, and the average Hispanic eighth-grader at the 26th percentile. International testing results rank US students 27th for math, and show just 1 in 4 American students performing on par with the average student in countries like Singapore and Finland.

“Our education system, legally desegregated more than a half century ago, is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race,” asserts the report, adding that “simply achieving a 90 percent graduation rate for students of color would add as much as $6.6 billion in annual earnings to the American economy.”

The commission, which was charged by Congress to examine the ways in which disparities in educational opportunities give rise to the achievement gap and to recommend policies to address that gap, is independent. It is now up to Congress, the administration, education advocacy groups, and various state and local bodies to decide what, if anything, they will do with its recommendations.

Given the attention President Obama gave to early-childhood education in his State of the Union address, in which he called for universal access to good preschools, it’s a safe bet that that area of the report will receive particular attention in coming months.

“Nothing is more important,” said Duncan, emphasizing that any effort to address the achievement and opportunity gap “has to start with high-quality early-learning opportunities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

And the recommendations the commission proposes seem to align with the proposals Mr. Obama has outlined.

Under Duncan, the Department of Education has also emphasized the need to reform the teaching profession and ensure that all students – particularly the most disadvantaged – have access to high-quality teachers. That received particular attention in the report, and, historically, has been a controversial issue in education-reform circles.

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