Sunday, February 12, 2012

Issue #48 The Achievement Gap Part I

What This Is…
Issue #48- February 12, 2012
In this issue: The Achievement Gap and Madison School Board Races
The Madison Metropolitan School District recently unveiled a proposed plan to address the achievement gaps that exist in our schools.  Over the next several weeks I plan on addressing individual parts of the plan.  This week I thought I'd weigh in with some of my general thoughts on the achievement gap.

The Achievement Gap
America's public schools are not perfect institutions.  They mirror the society in which they exist.  The people who work in these schools are also imperfect.  While it seems like it should be unnecessary to mention these facts, it appears that, at times the rest of our society forgets the obvious and expects more from schools and educators than is humanly possible.

One of the most troubling and pressing issues that face our schools (and also our society at large) is the fact that many individuals in our society don't succeed at a level that they are capable of because of factors beyond their control.  Two of the largest negative influences on a persons statistical chance of "making it" in America are race and class.  Just being born a certain race or into a lower social class immediately changes a person's odds of achieving higher levels of education, income and social status.

In our schools this is known as The Achievement Gap and its effects are felt in many ways.  Any time there is a disparity in outcomes or achievement between groups we need to find ways to measure the gaps.  In education we frequently use test scores, graduation rates, numbers of students pursuing higher education and other measures.  What we find is that in general the same groups that aren't achieving financial success, that are incarcerated at a higher rate and who occupy our lower social classes are the same ones that aren't seeing measurable success in schools.

While it may not be startling to see the statistics, it certainly is disturbing that these statistics are so consistent and show such disparity between different groups in America.  Educators have grappled with this issue and despite many initiatives and countless programs the gaps continue to show up with each new cycle of data collection.  As educators we can't accept the constraints and conditions that the society outside of the school system places on us.  It is our job to provide opportunities and build skills to help all students achieve in our communities not to perpetuate the problems that already exist.  While we must recognize that many factors that help create these gaps are outside of our control, we can't simply accept that the gaps will exist because of these factors.  

At the same time we must recognize that the reasons for the disparity in achievement are many and this is a complex issue.  There is no simple fix that will end the achievement gaps in schools or in society at large.  Each of our students is a complex individual and it is not reasonable to simply lump all students of a certain demographic into a mass category with needs that can be addressed in a uniform way.  One type of programming will not meet the needs of all students of a certain race, gender, ethnicity, social class. 

What works for students is a broad based, community supported school system with the best available educators using sound educational practices in thoughtful, culturally respectful and responsive ways.  A system where resources are available to meet the needs (physical, social, emotional and academic) of all students.  A place where students of different backgrounds can come together and learn.  A community where education is valued and students are encouraged to put forth their best efforts.

Creating such a school system is not simple.  If it were easy we wouldn't be talking about achievement gaps for whole groups of students.  Clearly there must be other factors involved beyond education.  There is enough blame to go around for every group involved in education.  The "blame game" is played every time education is discussed in public forums.  Unfortunately while adults argue theory and shift responsibility the students continue to struggle.

While it is counterproductive to spend too much time focusing on blaming anyone I feel it is important to point out some glaring places where the gap is perpetuated.  Obviously educators have a role in the continuation of the achievement gap.  We have been guilty at times of not seeing ways that we could improve our practices.  Unfortunately there are educators who are biased against and unresponsive to students who are different from themselves. 

In fact, to many it makes sense to blame educators as the primary cause of any failure in the schools.  We are the ones who work in the schools and who have the most responsibility for providing educational opportunities to students.  If a "defective product", or failing student, is the result of our efforts then the "manufacturer" is responsible.  This argument is based on the faulty concept of education as a business.  The model of education as a business is so flawed in so many ways, and this story (frequently shared) is just one example of why the analogy doesn't work.        

As educators we have a responsibility to address the issues that surround achievement gaps and work to eliminate the gaps.  Every educator I know is deeply committed to doing everything possible to erase the glaring disparity in the success rates of our students.  The Madison Metropolitan School District's administration has offered a plan to address the achievement gaps in Madison's schools.  The plan was just released this past Monday and is over 100 pages of information and ideas.  It is important that we look carefully at this plan and that all parties are able to have input into the final version that emerges from the discussion.  There are many components to this plan that will need to be studied and evaluated.  On the first take, I was glad to see the wide range of ideas and hope that closer evaluation bears out my initial, positive response.      

While the achievement gaps merit our attention I do have significant concerns about the implications that addressing these gaps have to our public education system.  One of these concerns is the fact that when the phrase achievement gap is used we automatically think of our African-American students.  African-American students are struggling as a collective group in our schools, but they are not alone when you look at the testing data.  We need to put an emphasis on looking carefully at our existing data and identifying students of all races and genders who need extra interventions in schools.  Achievement isn't a single race issue and to treat it as one ignores the needs of other students.  Improving schools with only a single focus in mind doesn't really improve our schools, it will just shift the gap to another area.

Another concern is the idea that by simply changing our instruction we will meet the academic needs of all our students.  The reasons that students fail in our schools are many and varied.  Some students are not successful for academic reasons, while others are unsuccessful for social, economic and/or emotional reasons.  Schools need to be equipped to deal with students as complete people who are part of a community and not simply treat them as individuals who are ready to learn every day. 

This concern about methods of instruction leads to another problem that we are seeing in education.  Students are tested and evaluated so that we can identify their areas of need so frequently that they are not getting instruction in their areas of need.  In my 15 years of teaching the amount of testing has more than tripled.  Yet with all the testing the achievement gaps have continued to exist.  Maybe we can identify the gaps better, but the time it takes to properly educate a student has been reduced.

Not only have we reduced the amount of instruction time while increasing the time given to assessments, but we also have changed the emphasis of our instruction.  Instead of teaching students through projects and hands on learning we have increased the time spent with the "basics".  In order to perform well on tests, students need to be prepared for the testing format and know the language used in testing.  Note that this is a format and a language that doesn't serve a student well outside the academic world. 

The results of our emphasis on testing and the "basics" has been a student population that frequently is not as engaged in learning.  Students learn best when they are interested in what they are learning and are actively involved in creating the curriculum they are participating in.  However, educators are constantly aware that the testing formats may not accurately measure what students learn in these different types of activities.  We seem to have lost our perspective on what education is and turned our system into one based solely on measurable outcomes of basic skills.

The NCLB and Race to the Top legislation have done something positive.  They have focused attention on the achievement gaps, given us a way to concretely identify areas of concern and have "lit a fire" under educators to address issues in achievement.  However, they have pushed education too far in one direction.  Educators got into the field to help students learn.  By measuring student progress using flawed methods and then penalizing schools and educators we are not improving educational practices.  Instead we have created an atmosphere of blame and fear where it is safer to teach to the test than it is to be creative and innovative.

In fact the education reform movement has taken on a distinctly anti-educator tone in recent years.  Education has become a partisan political issue and not an issue that unites communities.  Educators have been portrayed as "roadblocks" to real education reform.  We have been painted as greedy, self-interested and unmotivated.  Our ability to unionize and collectively bargain have been presented as a major reason our schools are "failing"  Republican leaders like Mitt Romney have admitted that some reform efforts like NCLB were actually designed to weaken educator unions as much as they were to help improve public education.     

Educators and public education have been unfairly singled out as a cause of the "decline of American civilization."  We are told that too much money is spent with too little reward.  The contradictions in the arguments against public education are many.  For example, it is often argued that class size doesn't matter and the union's efforts to lower educator/pupil ratios are simply ways to fill union coffers.  Yet at the same time our wealthiest Americans are sending their children to private schools that boast of small class sizes.  We are told that public education can not fail a single child.  However, it is acceptable for market economics to create situations where people go bankrupt and lose their homes.  If market economics is good enough for schools shouldn't the same thinking apply to individual students?  If crime rates increase we blame the criminals and ask for more money to fight crime.  If students don't test well we blame the teachers and cut budgets. 

The atmosphere of mistrust has undermined efforts at education reform.  Now when a proposal to change education policy is advanced it is met with resistance from one side or the other.  Madison Prep is one example of this happening.  The idea that we need to address the needs of our minority males in Madison schools is one that is supported by almost the entire community.  My initial response to the idea was, why not give it a try?  However, as negotiations for Madison Prep moved ahead the entire process became tainted by politics.  The political climate of the Madison community is so charged that any discussion immediately became controversial.  In the end the bitter feelings that came from the debate will make future efforts to compromise and work collectively more difficult. 

The influence of outside organizations is felt deeply in individual communities as we work to make our schools better for all children.  Once again the Madison Prep debate is an example of this.  We may never know if there was any underlying agenda in the proposal and if the leaders of Madison Prep were influenced by these outside foundations.  Some argue that it doesn't matter and that the immediate needs of our students outweigh the potential for us to lose control of our schools to corporate interests. 

However, I feel differently.  We know that money is a huge concern for our schools and one way to get control of a school district is to buy it.  The charter/choice movement in education has not demonstrated true concern for children on a consistent basis.  Instead we have seen these organizations look for profit and ignore the needs of the community and its future.  We can't afford to let this movement gain a foothold in our public schools.  It's true that the idea of guilt by association is problematic in many ways.  However, as proved by events like the Komen Foundations recent public relations fiasco, we can see that big money can exert an influence on even the most well intentioned organizations.

Unfortunately, we will see the same level of distrust and negativity as discussion progresses on the MMSD plan to address the achievement gap.  Conservatives are already talking about the cost of the plan and arguing that educators need to face the consequences of "failing" our students.  We will see different special interest groups try to advance their causes over the needs of others.  In the end we must hope that educators, district administration, school board members and the community at large can find a way to dialog and compromise in order to best meet the real objective of our schools, education for all.   

Perhaps the most positive thing about the current debate about achievement gaps is just that, there is debate.  At last Monday's unveiling of MMSD's plan the crowd was diverse, polite and engaged.  We need to keep that level of civility as we move forward.  If we allow partisan politics and special interests to take over the debate we will all lose.  We will lose our present students and we will horribly damage the future potential for our children and our community. 

School Board…
Local politics rarely get the level of investment that national races do.  This is unfortunate because it is at the local level that we see such significant impacts on our daily lives.  There is no doubt but that Federal legislation has an effect on all of us, but policy implemented at a local level is not only felt more immediately, but is also more easily influenced by common people.  Our local school board elections are an example of local races that will have a huge impact on our community in the near future. 

The school board in Madison will be responsible for many huge decisions in the upcoming months.  We will see a transition from a collective bargaining agreement with the educators to a different arrangement, probably a handbook of some sort.  As funding for public education continues to be a troubling issue, the school board will have to deal with ways to improve education for all students while maintaining a tight budget.   New rules and guidelines associated with NCLB and the Race to the Top will continue to come at local districts.  Along with all of this the school board will be responsible for creating connections with the community and defending public education through the media and other outlets.  Not an easy task for any group.

We, the citizens of Madison, have an obligation to elect competent, responsive leaders to our school board.  They must be able to handle public pressure and be beholden to no special interest group.  They must be willing to make difficult decisions that benefit the most possible students and do as little harm as possible to the rest.  Be sure to stay informed and get accurate information out to everyone so we can elect the best candidates possible.

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