Op Ed: Closing achievement gap requires new thinking

Originally published in the Richmond Times Dispatch
Posted: Sunday, October 6, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 11:30 am, Sun Oct 6, 2013.

By: Stanley Trent

For nearly 50 years, the federal government has tried — but largely failed — to find the right formula to close the achievement gap between the highest-performing students in America’s public school classrooms and those who get left behind.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) embraced the idea that more funding for education would close the gaps.

In 2001, No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of ESEA, combined more funding with standardized accountability. NCLB required each state to monitor adequate yearly progress (AYP) with a goal of achieving 100 percent pass rates by 2014 for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, English proficiency, disability or socioeconomic status. As the deadline nears, however, many states have not met the goal, making sanctions — including the loss of federal funding — imminent.

In an effort to address inadequacies, President Obama unveiled his “Race to the Top” initiative in 2009, which has granted NCLB waivers to 39 states and the District of Columbia. The waivers allowed several states to lower pass rates in reading and math for students in groups who have not met adequate yearly progress under NCLB. Instead, using group baselines derived from previous testing, progress will be based on growth, and struggling students will have more time to catch up.

Our review of the evolution of NCLB supports the view that this latest “growth model” only feigns evolution and perpetuates acceptance of the belief that, due to life circumstances, some students will always lag behind.

A new approach and new thinking are needed, but that would counter the historic approach to this issue.

Historically, lawmakers and reformers have assumed that change and goal-attainment occur in a linear manner. Our review of ESEA implementation revealed the following linear progression of assumptions:

• ESEA: More funding for education will close achievement gaps.

• NCLB: More funding and standardized accountability measures assessed annually will close achievement gaps.

• NCLB Waivers: More funding, better assessments and shifting to growth models will close achievement gaps.

Our inquiry revealed that overreliance on this problem-solving approach continually thwarts efforts to equalize educational opportunities.

These linear models fail because they ignore the fact that context matters at the local school level.

The linear progression outlined above disregards that schools are complex social organizations with varying institutional beliefs and conditions that influence achievement.

For instance, institutional beliefs about students, teacher quality, home-school relationships and availability of fiscal resources have perennially influenced realization of ESEA/NCLB goals. Although research and Race to the Top recommendations support the need to address these and other contextual factors, the tendency has been to focus primarily on student characteristics and outcomes.

Within a linear framework, “fixing” student deficits guides reform efforts, but that approach misses the mark.

Historically, students who experience persistent school failure have typically been viewed through a pathological lens. This recurrent pattern existed even before the passage of the ESEA in 1965. During the initial years of ESEA, African-American and poor students were classified as culturally and/or economically disadvantaged. NCLB waiver application language includes historically low performing, historically underachieving, subgroup, and gap group students.

This pattern suggests that commitment to equity has often been hijacked by deficit thinking. In this vein, moving to a growth model by lowering proficiency rates may adversely affect teacher expectations and signify to students that skin color, language, or socioeconomic status dictate what they can achieve. Also, the vast spectrum of abilities and differences among targeted students may be overlooked.

The time has come to move beyond more of the same.

The Obama administration deserves praise for its commitment to educational equity. But it’s doubtful that current NCLB guidelines, implemented in business-as-usual fashion, will lead to widespread goal attainment.

What might actually work better? We identify two essential components of an alternative model to incite more favorable outcomes.

We propose an ecological model that views everyone within the system, not just students, as the focus. One component of this model is identification of multiple contextual factors that influence student achievement. Research conducted by Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera supports both this recommendation and our claim that merely lowering proficiency rates will not close achievement gaps.

Their preliminary findings show that incremental improvements in teacher quality and student achievement ensue when educators collectively hold high expectations for themselves and their students, demonstrate respect for parents and students, emphasize academics and instruction, and reshape inequitable policies and practices.

Study of the contexts wherein these beliefs and practices emerge requires professional development that transcends traditional approaches. This is another component of an ecological model. Rebecca Dufour’s research shows that professional development approaches are usually fragmented, decontextualized, short-lived, and rarely improve teacher quality.

She found that, with adequate administrative support, professional development is more effective when educators collaborate in workgroups or “professional learning communities” where they cyclically design, implement, evaluate and refine practices. Unlike traditional professional development that follows a linear progression, this process never ends.

This ecological, contextual view of schooling will cultivate the understanding that significantly more students can cross the PreK-12 finish line with the tools needed to race to the top of where they wish to go. Educators will learn that while factors such as poverty will not desist, both teachers and students can develop mindsets, skills and practices that will diminish its effects. Otherwise, students who always succeed will continue to succeed and those who persistently fail will continue to fail. Our students — all of them — deserve better.

Stanley Trent is an associate professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Other contributors to this column are Fares Karam, Courtneay Kelly, Kate Stephensen, Melissa Driver, Erin Hughey-Commers, Clare O’Brien and Paul Yoder. These are graduate students who were enrolled in a seminar Trent taught during the fall of 2012. The course was guided by the premise that study of No Child Left Behind through a historical lens might reveal patterns in policy development and implementation that have precluded efforts to close the achievement gap.