Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What must we do to Close the Achievement Gap?

In August two stories came out demonstrating that despite their positive press and achievement gains for minority students the past few years, the New York City (NYT) and DC (WPost) school districts have regressed in their efforts to close the achievement gap. We applaud the school districts for their relentless emphasis on instruction and their mission to reduce the achievement gap, and wish that their strategies had worked. However, we think that the strategies are too narrow and will only take a district so far when poor children, those at the bottom of the achievement gap, face numerous barriers to learning. New York and DC are beginning to see the limits of their reforms.

Urban school districts must acknowledge that closing the achievement gap demands that we pay attention to both in-school (e.g., quality of teachers and curriculum) and out-of-school (e.g., social, health, and economic conditions) factors. A school reform strategy that rests solely on academics, without addressing the myriad needs of our school children and their families, will not succeed at scale. Rather, school districts must work with community partners, CBOs, faith-based institutions, higher education, health and mental health agencies, and neighborhood groups to develop comprehensive solutions for the complex challenges of educating all students.

Washington Post reporter Bill Turque closes his article on DCPS with a response from University of California at Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller. He writes that Fuller

Said that although good schools and good teachers can make a difference in the lives of poor children, the persistence of the achievement gaps may also suggest that there is a limit to their reach.

[Quoting Fuller:] "Part of this hitting the wall [on closing the achievement gap] may be the troubling fact that we may need to somehow attack family poverty before we see greater progress in closing achievement," Fuller said.

We urge policy makers at all levels to recognize that the problems facing our urban children are complex. While improving achievement outcomes starts in the classroom with strong instruction, these complex problems require a comprehensive solution if we want our youth to graduate high school ready for college, career, and citizenship. Community schools offer a comprehensive strategy that impacts both achievement and poverty. We can and we must do both.

Reuben Jacobson

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