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.

Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune/AP
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.

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

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.

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.

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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