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Weigh In: What are you doing to close the achievement gap?

Administrators share their strategies for battling one of the toughest challenges in education.

By Jacqueline Heinze

"We start intervention in preschool and keep it up through high school," says George Stone, superintendent of Cape Henlopen School District in Delaware. "Every year, more students are identified as homeless, more ELL children enroll, and, as the economy changes, more families change socioeconomic status, which often creates social, emotional, and academic issues reflected in their children. 

"To address these students' long-range needs, we have implemented preschool programs that serve not only students identified with learning delays, but also large numbers of ‘typical peers' as well. Typical peers are students we admit as role models in paired and group activities. Combined with full-day kindergarten for all students, we are seeing tremendous growth and significant results in our primary grades.

"Addressing the short-range needs of students is more complex. We began by establishing an action plan for every student below standard in reading or math. This plan outlines skill deficiencies, recommends corrective actions, and includes a timeline for monitoring and reassessing. These plans form a blueprint to help guide instruction.

"Mentoring is also a factor in how we reduce the achievement gap. Each of our elementary schools has between 50 to 100 community mentors working with students one on one in reading and math for a half hour each day. Technology also plays a major role, providing additional remedial hours for students in need.

"At the high school, AVID (avid.org ) has had a major impact. AVID teaches note-taking skills, provides mentors, and requires AP and honors courses. A large percentage of the first graduating class has been accepted to college.

"Our multifaceted approach has helped produce significant results. One of our middle schools was named a Governor's School for Excellence. One of our elementary schools with the greatest diversity and achievement gap challenges outscored all of our other schools. "

"We are getting rid of tracking altogether," says Amy Sichel, superintendent of Abington School District near Philadelphia and recent recipient of Pennsylvania's Superintendent of the Year award. "Rather than continuing to ‘sort' kids, all of our students in grades 7–12 are now in a rigorous college prep program, and any student who wants to be in our honors and/or advanced placement classes has the opportunity to enroll in them.

"We rolled this out in a very methodical way. We began by disaggregating our data. That showed us that our concerns were real. Children who are not exposed to a rigorous curriculum are the same children who are not proficient on high-stakes tests. So about four years ago, we started to de-track our secondary school, committing to the idea that every single academic program had to be a rigorous college preparatory program. As the next step, we initiated a committee entitled Opportunities to Learn, consisting of administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members. The steering committee was led by me, and then there were three level committees: elementary, junior, and senior. Each of those committees was divided into five subgroups: a data group, a student placement group, a parent involvement group, a student support group, and a professional development group. This let us customize how we were going to narrow the achievement gap by level, but it also gave us the ability to create commonalities across grade level. During the first year, we focused on grades 7, 8, and 10. Next, we rolled it into grades 9 and 11. Then we moved into grade 12.

"But we knew we couldn't just throw kids into this rigorous curriculum. You have to develop a well-organized system of scaffolding to support students' needs. So, for example, we have students taking the rigorous geometry class who also receive two days a week of support classes. At the same time, we made sure that as many special education students as possible were enrolled in college prep classes. We support these students with a host of scaffolding components.

"In the four years since we have de-tracked our curriculum, the percentage of students choosing to go on to college has risen from 83 to 90 percent. Our test scores are outstanding. This past year in Pennsylvania, our high school was in the top four percent proficiency level in reading and the top five percent proficiency level in math. Is the gap closed? Absolutely not. We are seeing it close, but we have more work to do."

"We raised graduation requirements and made our curriculum more rigorous for all students," says Kathy Cox, Georgia state superintendent of schools. "The Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) led our state into the standards-based movement. These world-class standards were designed for all students and aligned to national and international standards. The GPS provides clear expectations for instruction, assessment, and student work. They define the level of work that demonstrates achievement of the standards, enabling a teacher to know ‘how good is good enough.' Now all students take the same coursework rather than having some kids taking lower-level courses.

"The other state-led effort is the creation of new graduation requirements. A hallmark of the new rule is the elimination of tiered diploma requirements. Under the tiered rule, different groups of students were held to different expectations, depending on whether they were going to college or into the work world. The new rule has one set of requirements for all students and specifies certain courses that all students must take.

"When more students are taking the same rigorous courses, all students are more likely to increase performance. Then all boats rise and the gap narrows."

"You have to start with high expectations for all students," says Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District in Texas. "We have 157,000 students in our district and a 30 percent mobility rate. We have 55,000 English language learners, and 4,000 homeless students. We're accountable for all those kids, and we don't mind accountability. We need to have high expectations for all of our students, but we also have to have support systems right behind those expectations.

"In Texas, we disaggregate the performance of students by student groups. Although Dallas has less than five percent of white students in the entire district, we determine performance gaps by looking at how white students are doing in the state of Texas compared to our ethnic minority students, our limited English proficiency students, and our economically disadvantaged students. It's important that all of our students have an equal opportunity to have a successful career, and the performance gap is an issue that holds students back. To tackle this, we developed a plan in 2005 called Dallas Achieves, which set performance targets for every student group for every year until 2010.

"These aggressive performance targets showed us where the gaps were in all of our student groups. So we set about to address those gaps. For example, we had concerns about the performance of our African-American students in math. So we put together a task force to select strategies that had been identified as best practices across the country, and we incorporated those strategies to help our African-American high school students in math. We've seen such solid gains here over the past few years that we are using some of our stimulus funds to extend these strategies into our elementary schools.

"I think that everyone needs to remember that a demographic shift is happening all over the country, not just in urban America but also in suburban America. Rather than establish high expectations for all the students, sometimes people make excuses why certain students aren't successful. But all students can be with the right strategies and support systems in place."


About the Author

Jacqueline Heinze is a contributing editor at Scholastic Administr@tor.

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