Solving Achievement Gap Requires A New Paradigm

December 11, 2016

Some wise individuals will one day realize the only way to fix education is to stop thinking of it as a school problem and begin recognizing it as a student problem.

That of course would be a huge shift in paradigm.

Every state policymaker who ever lived has seen the issue as school-based.  In their minds, there are “good” schools and there are “bad” schools. They seek to exalt and reward the “good” schools, and punish the “bad” schools.

In recent years, they have encouraged students to go out and find a better school if they don’t like the one they’re attending.

Everyone – educators included – have bought into this school-centric approach, this way of describing the problem, this way of thinking about solutions.

But all the evidence suggests just the opposite.

A Difference In Cause Vs. Effect

Student performance is not a result of the schools they attend. Rather, school performance is a result of the students who attend them.

Policymakers simply gloss over that most all the “good” schools, the ones they want to reward, are concentrated in the rich suburbs. Most all the “bad” schools, the ones they want to punish, are located in the inner cities.

PrintThat’s because schools with large pockets of disadvantaged students mostly perform poorly. Schools with large pockets of advantaged kids almost always perform well.

Two very large forces are at work:

  • Well-recognized is the difference in student preparation. Disadvantaged students come to school behind the curve, most of them fighting conditions that will hold them back throughout their school years.
  • Under-recognized is the degree to which school attention and resources are drawn away as a result. Instead of focusing entirely on education, principals and teachers are forever fighting a rear-guard action against absenteeism, tardiness, behavior issues, and remediation for kids who start out so far behind. The combination can drag down classrooms, schools, even entire school districts.

The differences jump out once again in student proficiency on AzMERIT – the new annual assessment of student progress.  AzMERIT Proves A Tough Test.

PrintOne significant development is that the state Dept. of Education has new database capabilities that allow it for the first time to acknowledge the differences among demographic groups. The results show the extent of the Achievement Gap:

  • Just over one-quarter of economically disadvantaged students pass the tests. That’s in comparison to nearly one-half of advantaged kids.
  • Just over one-quarter of Hispanic students pass the tests. Native Americans score even lower. That’s in comparison to two-thirds of Asian students and one-half of whites.

These disparities roll up to the school level.

Latino Arizona, a new report sponsored by Arizona State University and other organizations, found for instance that “district and charter schools with high percentages of Latino enrollment serve student populations with the highest poverty rates, the highest percentage of second-language learners, and the lowest achievement levels compared with schools with lower Latino enrollment.”

AZschool scores CS6Bringing Up Arizona presented a scatter plot two years ago showing a very strong correlation between poverty levels and scores on the AIMS tests that were in use through 2014.   As poverty levels went up, scores went down.

Now a relatively new undertaking called Arizona Research on Education has graphed much the same relationship for the AzMERIT scores in 2015 and 2016.

Joe O’Reilly, the founder of Arizona Research on Education, allows as how there is a lot of ground to make up “but that is the moral imperative educators face.”

Arguing that “poverty is not destiny,” he points to “some high poverty schools that perform like schools with low free lunch rates.”

Others who have influence in the state have argued much the same thing. “It can be done,” they say.

Perhaps the most prominent advocate is Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state school superintendent who is now executive director of a group called A for Arizona. She was quoted recently as saying, “It’s unbelievably difficult work, but it’s replicable.”

Bringing Up Arizona has held lengthy interviews with principals of low-income, relatively high performing “A” schools.

They are remarkable individuals doing a remarkable job. But out of their self-assessments, and discussions with many others, come two observations:

  • There isn’t a blueprint that guarantees success. If there were, everyone would be following it. Instead the successful principals are following their own instincts, each of them emphasizing different keys for running a school. What seems as important as anything to their success is the strength of their own personalities.
  • Despite the efforts of many, these principals are few and far between.  The schools they lead are the infrequent exceptions to the rule. The great majority of schools follow the rule; they are in fact what constitutes the rule.

PrintNor, for those who wonder, is the problem solved by school choice.  The available evidence suggests that even the subset of kids who change schools, either because their families have the moxie or feel forced for whatever reason to do so, end up taking their problems with them.  The percentage of disadvantaged students passing the AzMERIT tests is only minutely higher in charter schools than in traditional schools.

The strident advocates of “it can be done” do a huge disservice by perpetuating the belief that the Achievement Gap is simply a matter of getting schools to do better.

If we want our education system to make meaningful progress in something less than a lifetime, we need to stop pinning all our hopes on the few schools that beat the odds and face up to the across-the-board needs of the many.

If anything, we are doing the opposite.

The authors of the Latino Arizona study, ASU education professor David Garcia and education researcher Anabel Aportela, demonstrate how schools with high percentages of Hispanic students are shortchanged on bond issues, budget overrides and tax-credit donations, leaving them not with more but with less in state-local funding and blunting the impact of the federal Title I money that is designed to help them.

They conclude that “schools with the highest enrollment of Latino students are also the schools most in need.”

We as a state are not going to make the progress these students need, and they are not going to make the progress we as a state need, until we get away from thinking about their issues as school-centric.  This is not about “good” schools and “bad” schools.  The problems they face are not school-specific. They are universal.  Likewise, the solutions need to be universal.

Looking For Student-Centric Solutions

School teachers are the heroic soldiers in this battle.  Their classrooms are the front lines.  Their talents and dedication do matter, but they’re up against long odds. Instead of leaving them alone in the trenches to fight the good fight, we as a state need to step in to systematically lend a hand.

What do their students need?

Early childhood support

This begins with pre-school and extends through kindergarten. If the state is loathe to restore all-day kindergarten for all students, it should begin by providing it for all poor children.

Additional funding

The Arizona School Boards Association and Latino Arizona author Garcia make a similar recommendation: Provide extra funding to schools based on the number of poor children they serve.  The added money to be used, for instance, to provide tutoring and other extra assistance in the early grades. This provision would be just one more adjustment to those already being made in the state’s complex school funding formula.

Raised expectations

The previous provision is not just a giveaway; it has to come with expectations.  We cannot give up on these kids, merely accepting whatever the results might be.  We have to expect more of ourselves and more of them.  The newly available demographic breakdowns of the AzMERIT results provide a starting point.  Collectively we have to move the needle by the time today’s pre-schoolers begin to be tested at the end of third-grade.

We’ll manage to accomplish this only by changing the paradigm.  We as a state need to shift our all-consuming obsession with schools to an all-out effort to raise up the students who need it most.