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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.

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The commission recommends a complete overhaul of the current system of recruiting, training, compensating, retaining, and evaluating America’s teachers, along with incentives to put effective teachers in high-needs schools.

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Among a host of specific recommendations, the report cites ideas like more teacher residency programs to recruit and place effective teachers in high-needs communities, collaborative teaching teams, and research-driven professional development.

“It’s impossible to name a single effective company that has an HR strategy like we handle public education,” said Christopher Edley, co-chair of the commission and dean of the University of California at Berkeley Law School, noting that the highest-needs students in America are more likely to have teachers with less experience, poorer materials, and less challenging curricula than other students. “None of that is a formula for success, and all of that needs to be changed and changed urgently.”

The commission included members who are often at odds on reform issues – like the heads of both major teachers unions along with Eric Hanushek, a Hoover Institution economist who has done groundbreaking work on the importance of teacher quality – but managed to agree on a broad array of recommendations, including measures to ensure a better pipeline of talented teachers to the schools who need them most.

“What you see in this report is the understanding and acknowledgment that if we’re about all kids, then equity is a crucial gateway to excellence,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers.

The report also included recommendations on school finance and funding inequities while recognizing that the federal government, which generally provides about 10 percent of K-12 spending, has a limited role.

It includes recommendations for both states and the federal government to address some of the inequities that often mean a major gap between high- and low-spending districts, of thousands of dollars per pupil.

This “was the hardest area to come to consensus on,” said Michael Rebell, a commission member and executive director of The Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, noting that the commission included people who have been prime witnesses on both sides of these issues in various state lawsuits over funding inequities.

The commission did not include a price tag on its recommendations (though Mr. Rebell and others noted that some of them, like providing quality services early on that keep kids from needing special-education services, may actually save money), and some are clearly unlikely to see much activity in the near future.

More than anything, said Mr. Edley of Berkeley Law School, he and other commission members hope the report becomes a “new polestar,” focused on equity and excellence, around which to frame education-reform efforts in the future – perhaps a replacement for the “A Nation at Risk” report 30 years ago which galvanized attention around education but hasn’t born the fruit its advocates were hoping.

“It’s important to measure the success of this enterprise less by what gets done this year or next year – though of course that’s critical … [but also by] how much traction these ideas get in the community of education advocates and reformers,” said Edley.

Ms. Weingarten of the AFT added, in a statement on the commission's report, that the report "is the closest thing we have had to a blueprint – crafted by people from across the ideological spectrum – for laying out the necessary programs and policies that the United States can take to close its shameful equity gap between the haves and have-nots."  

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