Closing the achievement gap

By Ed Dennis of Hillsboro, Oregon. Ed is the chief of staff to Susan Castillo, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and a member of the Hillsboro City Council.

Last month, Superintendent Susan Castillo and the Oregon Department of Education awarded six schools across the state with "Celebrating Student Success" awards. The awards recognize schools narrowing the academic achievement gap faced by minority and poor students.

So what do schools like Vernon, White City, Fairfield, Rocky Heights, Beaver Acres, Nyssa have in common? [Editor's note: All links go to PDF reports.]

If you read the short narratives on each of the schools you can clearly see that each school is focused on literacy, and improving achievement for all students, regardless of the challenges children face.

In brief videos of the schools you can clearly see that these schools and their staffs recognize, appreciate, and utilize the value that parents and community volunteers can contribute to the task of educating future generations.

What will it take to close the achievement gap for more kids?

  • (Show?)

    What will it take to close the achievement gap for more kids?

    That's a complex question you asked, Ed. I'm not an educator, but after more than 10 years of involvement as a public school parent I have some opinions. (I'm not going to say fully fund schools, because that's obvious.)

    First, the most important part of education is the teacher. A passionate, engaging teacher can encourage kids to love learning; a mediocre teacher can do the opposite.

    Second, if students are not going to be grouped by ability, then lower class sizes and provide better training to teachers on how to differentiate.

    Third, have high expectations for everyone. Here is a good role model for teachers -- Rafe Esquith, a 5th grade teacher from Hobart Elementary. Hobart is a 2000+ student, inner-city school in Los Angeles where 90% of the students live in poverty and not one is a native English speaker. Here's his class reading list -- Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird. Plus every year they do a full-length, unabridged production of a Shakespeare play. Don't think it can't be done; just find teachers who are willing to do it.

    Fourth, don't do anything to hold back the kids at the top even though it may make the gap wider at first. Lost potential is lost potential no matter which students experience it.

    Fifth, realize that kids learn in different ways. Don't give up the arts for more "core" classes. Chess and music help math skills, and dance and theater teach discipline and provide physical benefits. The ability to participate in band or art class or the school play just might give students a reason to love school when they otherwise wouldn't care. (For inspiration, go watch Mr. Holland's Opus or Music of the Heart.)

    Finally, continue to get parents involved and informed. This is probably the hardest part because families are busy and sometimes so detached from their kids' education. But it's critical. It amazes me to learn how many children have TVs in their bedrooms. Do they and their parents know that kids without TVs in their rooms are more likely to succeed in school?

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    I agree with most of your post, Mr. Dennis, but could you please name me one school in all of America that "succeeded" without daily help from truly engaged families?

    I'll wait.

    So will all the hard-working principals at "priority" schools who host PTA meetings with fewer people than it takes to play a game of bridge.

    School is a three-legged stool -- students, teachers and families working together. One leg breaks or disappears and the whole thing falls apart.

  • Ed Dennis (unverified)

    I agree that parents are a key to success. But can we have some success without them—if we can not get them?

    The schools that we recognized on the web site do struggle with parental involvement yet they find some way to help those kids succeed anyway.

    Also, there was a study done regarding and they called it the 90/90/90 schools. 90 percent poverty, 90 percent kids of color and 90 percent academic success.

    Those schools did not have good parent involvement, but they did have great teachers, high expectation for all kids, and a focus on reading.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    Thanks for the research and pointing out the exceptions to the rule.

  • Becky (unverified)

    I remember seeing studies done about six years ago that said student success was about 47% teacher quality, 48% parental involvement, and the rest was a variety of things such as class size.

    About class size, I will simply say that my husband and I were looking through old photos a few days ago and ran across our elementary class photo sheets - 35 kids in a class was not unusual. We did fine in school. I think it's because of the other two factors - good teachers and involved parents. Even more than that, however, it is communication between good teachers and involved parents.

    I have really noticed this with my own kids. We just moved from Woodburn to Boring a month ago. I did everything I could to be involved in my kids education in Woodburn and the teachers were, for the most part, good teachers. But my kids were still struggling. I absolutely do not think it was because of the difficulty of the language issues in the Woodburn School District.

    The difference has been stark between Woodburn and Boring. One of my kids' teachers has called me three times in the month he has been in her class to tell me my son had not completed his homework. I had asked him and he had said it was done. I had seen him working on it. I had helped him when he had questions. But he had not felt like finishing it and had taken advantage of my inability to know that. The teacher's call took that ability away from him. At Woodburn I only found out about missing assignments at parent-teacher conferences, when it was too late to do anything about it. My son's teacher also called me once to tell me my son had been "melancholoy" all day and she thought I should know. I never once in four years received a call from either of my son's teachers at Woodburn. But I often wished there was a way to know day-to-day what my sons were actually doing at school. Had I known I could have done something about it. Now I do know and I have been able to make my son catch up.

    I know that this is anecdotal and that my own kids aren't members of any minority group, but in my opinion the best thing that could be done to improve student performance in schools challenged by high levels of minority students would be for teachers to communicate more with parents and give them a chance to do their part. By my observations, the Mexican kids at Woodburn had very involved parents who came to all the school events and sports activities but who simply were unable to speak English. Many of the teachers there speak Spanish and could have communicated better with those parents, giving them a chance to help their kids succeed. From what I have seen, our education system is one of the primary reasons these parents bring their children to the U.S. They want them to do well and they understand what kind of life waits for them if they don't.

  • (Show?)

    About class sizes: We made an observation similiar to Becky's when we found my husband's elementary school photos showing surprisingly large classes. Yes there were societal differences then (most kids in two-parent households with Mom home) but also, importantly, the students were grouped by ability. If there were 35 students in a class, they were all on the same page (so to speak). Apparently today the preferred practice is to mix all abilities in the classroom. Sure, nobody wants to be in the "low" class, but this type of ability grouping works best in small classes (which we don't have in most Oregon schools), and with teachers who are highly trained in curriculum differentiation.

    Although I don't dispute that smaller classes are better in theory, I cannot support class size reduction without assurance that there are enough excellent teachers to fill the positions created (and in some districts, the space in which to put them). When the class size reduction incentive happened in California, they found themselves suddenly short of hundreds of teachers. Without a doubt I would rather have my kids in a large class with an excellent teacher than in a small class with a mediocre one.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    I enjoyed reading the posts about bigger classes in the old days.

    Yes, I went to a elementary school with 35 kids in a class too, and if any student went to the principal's office more than once, he/she was expelled. On the spot.

    Today, it takes a loaded gun or drugs on campus to expel a student, so we have allowed a few "bad" apples to spoil the bunch, in my humble opinion. Yesterday's Education column in the NY Times detailed the problem in some NYC schools with revolving doors for kids and teachers.

    Fortunately, I work at a middle school with great kids who have very involved parents, so we don't see as many discipline problems as some "priority" schools do. Thank God.

  • (Show?)

    Like most others, I spent 12 years in the public school system. Comparing myself to my friends at the time, the ones in remedial classes had half the homework as myself. In fact, I took harder classes than I needed because I wanted more challenge. Therein lies two problems:

    1) You will never close the achievement gap when one set of students does 2 hours of homework and the other group does 1 hour; you will never close the achievement gap when I did a 20 page paper in school and my friends did 3 page papers. This widens the gap. Everyone must do the same quantity of work.

    2) I chose to work harder. We've stopped forcing kids to work harder. We only work as hard as we want instead of working as hard as we inherently can. School performance has the highest correlation with income levels. It is those students in lower income areas that we must ensure work as hard as they inherently can. That means set standards and better teacher management.

    How many of these successful schools have "homeroom" teachers still? Homeroom in the old traditional sense. How many of those successful schools have really hard curricula and enforce the curricula?

  • x (unverified)

    How about remove the ESL and go full emersion?

    Oh yeah, it's the money.

    How about school funding instead of PERS funding?

    <h2>Oh yeah, it's the money.</h2>
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