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.
Addressing the Achievement Gap: Information and Input Sessions | Madison Metropolitan School Distric
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.
Daily Kos: New bill would take millions from Central Florida schools to give to privately run charte
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.