Achievement: The Reach Not The Gap

A Critter Cruise demonstrated to me why standardized testing will never be a way to close the achievement gap.

What has a Critter Cruise got to do with standardized testing, you may ask. In fact, what is a Critter Cruise?

A Critter Cruise is an hour long boat trip out into Nantucket Harbor during which young children become familiar with the sea life from the depths of the ocean. The college students, studying marine biology, who work on the boat put huge containers overboard into the deep and bring up all kinds of specimen: huge crabs, lobsters, snails, and welks. The children hold them and carry them over to touch tanks where they observe them as one of the marine biology students gives them details about the specimen. After the boat travels farther from the shore, the children are given fishing poles and taught how to use them. Each child on the boat catches at least one fish, and parents and grandparents take photos of them proudly holding their line with the caught fish on the end of it.

The young children on this Critter Cruise are sure to score higher on their future standardized tests than children who will never have that kind of opportunity. First of all, the information about sea life given to the children on the Critter Cruise could be topic of a reading section on a standardized test. Secondly, the conversation about biology gives children a vocabulary and a perspective about life on the planet that those children who do not have such conversations lack and are unlikely to be able to compensate for. Thirdly, to even get to Nantucket for a Critter Cruise means that the children have families with the time, money, and motivation to provide all kinds of opportunities to broaden their children’s world which all children do not have. Lastly, the enhanced confidence in themselves gained by the children on the Critter Cruise who held up huge crabs with their own fingers and reeled in fish all by themselves cannot be easily duplicated by children who do not have those kinds of experiences.

So to sit down all kids, both those who have many experiences such as the Critter Cruise and those who have had none of that kind of experience, in the same room and give them a timed standardized test in order to OBJECTIVELY assess them is ridiculous. Their acquired knowledge differs. Their vocabulary differs. Their sense of the world and their place in it differs. Their confidence in themselves differs. There is no objectivity in standardized testing.

And for what do we want to measure them against one another? To validate for ” the haves” that they have everything including good test scores and to keep “the have-nots” aspirations low?

The achievement gap can never, ever be closed by continuing to assess students with standardized tests. We can improve achievement only by giving all children similar resources for being nurtured and enriched and then by asking all children to grow and develop beyond where they are. It’s not an achievement gap that we should be trying to close but an achievement reach that we should be offering to all children, the rich and the poor alike, the haves and the have nots alike. Only then will we be talking about actual achievement rather than talking about the gap between the well-resourced children and the under-resourced children.

Now That’s What I Call Achievement!

In a recent post, I wrote about Jacob Fialkoff singing the national anthem, unrehearsed and before a large audience, as an example of an achievement that made Jacob aware of both his capabilities and possibilities. I then recommended that we replace standardized tests with that kind of opportunity for all students and, by doing so, redefine student achievement.

In this post, I want to do more than suggest; I want to offer a blueprint for redefining student achievement. The blueprint is a set of criteria to assess high school students at the conclusion of a course. It begins with setting goals for the development of the students as learners and thinkers and then giving them the strategies for developing in the ways we determined are best for them and then, at the end of the course, asking the students to pull it all together and create something new with both those strategies we have taught them and the content we have explored. A surefire result of what the students will produce is that they will amaze us, just as Jacob amazed his audience.

An excellent veteran teacher ran into my office after administering his first exams with  that set of criteria and exuberantly proclaimed, “I can’t believe my students did what they did! I didn’t know they could do it!” I have seen that same reaction from innumerable teachers.  Nothing fires teachers up more than to see their students achieve.

Here is the blueprint for redefining student achievement:

                                  CRITERIA FOR MIDTERM AND FINAL EXAMS

Exams that assess student learning require that students: 

  1. Use critical thinking to identify, examine, and analyze the controlling concepts of the course.
  2. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies mqdeveloped during the semester.
  3. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Engage in a new challenge which is a learning experience in itself.
  6. Demonstrate individual achievement.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

High school students of all abilities and in various school settings have demonstrated  achievement with this kind of exam. In a school district in which I supervised 33 high school English teachers who taught students of all abilities, from those who struggled as readers and writers to those who were in AP courses and earning college credit from the University of Connecticut, all the students took exams, based on those same criteria. I read all 99 exams every semester and responded at length to the teachers about the ways in which they required their students of differing abilities to fulfill each of the criteria.

A wonderful result of the agreed-upon exam policy was the energetic and creative discussions about teaching and learning that came about among us as we talked together about creating those exams and grading them. I have copies of those exams and am happy to sharek them with other districts eager to pursue this redefinition of student achievement.

This kind of exam has redefined student learning in both suburban schools and urban schools, even ones termed “failing schools” as determined by standardized test scores.  In one of those schools termed a “failing school”,  a veteran, highly regarded teacher, after teaching her first semester with curriculum goals of developing the students as learners and thinkers and grading her first set of exams that followed the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams”, said to me. “I now know what it is to teach.”

Working with teachers, talking with teachers, and respecting the professional knowledge of teachers – that’s how we can redefine student achievement. Hiring standardized testing companies that require us to teach only what a standardized test can measure  and implementing the low-level Common Core standards not written by anyone who teaches has been a short-cut, but a short-cut to nowhere. It’s now time to abandon that short-cut and engage teachers in redefining student achievement. The blueprint of the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams” points the way.

Connecticut Education Needs A New Direction From The Top

According to new research from several European economists, children of same sex parents do better in school than children of parents of different sexes. They have higher test scores and graduate at a higher rate than kids who have parents of different sexes.

If one wanted to be cynical about Connecticut’s efforts to close the large and gaping achievement gap among the students in the state, one might suggest that the state give tax breaks and other incentives to same sex couples who become parents and penalize couples of different sexes if they  have more than one child in order to increase test scores.

That wouldn’t be the solution, of course, because standardized test scores and graduation rates are foolish measures of achievement.  The scores of all standardized tests, from the SBAC in Grade 3 to the SAT in Grade 12, are indications chiefly of the income of the parents and the zip code of the home. Also, graduation rates are reported in unreliable ways – either by dismissing from the school or holding back a grade those students who will not graduate as charter schools have done or by giving students watered-down learning experiences that count as course credit as public schools have done.

The recent research study about the sex of the patents points out that a socio-economic factor applies to its findings. Using a large data base of 1,200 children raised by same sex couples and more than a million kids raised by different sex couples, researchers found that same sex couples were often wealthier than different sex couples. This did not come as a surprise to the researchers since same sex couples often use fertility treatments to have a child, and those treatments are expensive. The cause and effect of high test scores and high graduation rates, therefore, is more complex than the sex of the parents.  One of the lead economists, Deni Mazrekaj, said, when presenting the research to the American Economic Association conference in January, ” Research shows that socio-economic status positively influences the school outcomes of children.” As encouraging and affirming as the recent research is about families with parents of the same sex, the report leaves us in Connecticut with the same basic questions to answer:

  • Do we want standardized tests and graduation rates to be our measure of student learning?
  • Can we ever close a gap in test scores when the scores are based on income inequality?

Governor Lamont and the State Board of Education are in the process of selecting a new Connecticut Commissioner of Education. It’s time for Connecticut to take the lead in the nation in defining what achievement is and how to assess it. To do that, we must have a Commissioner of Education who pushes hard that Connecticut:

  1. Stops using test scores and graduation rates as the measures of school success.
  2. Gives students of poverty the same experiences that more affluent children have: read to them, encourage their questions, give them ample opportunities to converse and to write,  let them express themselves with art and music, give them knowledgeable adults as role models, invite then to explore the wonders of science, literature, history, and diverse cultures, teach them to be diligent in their work habits, and take them on adventures through which they  get to know the world and claim it as their own. Most of all, invite them to be constructors of their own knowledge – to be learners.
  3. Assesses students authentically, asking them to demonstrate skills they will need to be successful, skills never, ever able to measured on standardized tests.  We could assess students on real world skills that Tony Wagner (Harvard Graduate School of Education) suggests: 1) critical thinking and problem solving, 2) initiative and entrepreneurialism, 3) collaboration, 4) agility and adaptability,  5) effective oral and written communication, 6) accessing and analyzing information, and 7) curiosity and imagination.
  4. Stops asking the question: How can we close Connecticut’s achievement gap? Let’s ask, instead: How can we best develop all children as learners and thinkers – the children who have two moms, the children who have two dads, the children with a dad and a mom, the children of poverty, and the children of affluence.

If we do these four actions, there will be a future research team that analyses what has caused the graduates of Connecticut’s schools to be so successful beyond high school, what has caused the graduates of Connecticut’s schools to be making such a difference in the world. Connecticut will have led the country in demonstrating what real achievement is.

 

 

 

Hope Is The Answer

There is only one answer to improving education, closing the achievement gap, and producing graduates who are capable and have a sense of purpose: Give poor kids what the children of the educated and the affluent already have.

We know that middle and upper class students in the United States receive from their public schools the best education in the world. We also know that the reason for the achievement of those more affluent kids does not come exclusively from what their schools offer them but also from what their families and communities give them as well. So let’s give poor kids those same family and community advantages of the more affluent and see what happens. 

Harris Rosen did just that. Since 1993, he has given $12 million to a poor community of about 3,000 people in the metro Orlando, Florida area named Tangelo Park. He gives about $500,000 a year, less than his start-up yearly contributions, directly to preschool and prekindergarten programs he established and for all graduating seniors who are going to college. 

Tangelo Park has a population that is 90% African American and, until recent years, was best known for its drugs, crime, and shuttered houses. Thank to Mr. Rosen’s involvement, Tangelo now has free preschool for all children ages 2-4 and prekindergarten classes with access to parenting classes, vocational courses, and technical training for their parents. Children, according to their teachers, now arrive in kindergarten ready to learn. The high school graduates all of its seniors, most of whom go on to college on full scholarships, funded by Harris Rosen. The scholarships are for anyone who is accepted to a Florida public university, college, community college, or technical school and covers tuition, room, board, books, and travel costs. There is a 75% college graduation rate of Tangelo high school graduates who go to college, which is the highest rate among ethnic groups in the nation. Tangelo now also has increased property values and plummeting crime rates. Harris Rosen’s investment, over the past 21 years, has changed lives and transformed a community. 

What created the changed lives and the transformed community? 

 For Harry Rosen, the changed lives of the people of Tangelo Park and the transformation of that community is all about an element absent in many impoverished American neighborhoods: hope.

“If you don’t have any hope,” Rosen says “then what’s the point?”

 The children of educated and affluent parents are raised in a culture of hope; they, to quote Emily Dickinson, ” dwell in possibility”. They are also given the cognitive skills to make the possible real for themselves. That is why they succeed. 

Harry Rosen questioned why students would devote countless hours to school and their families would emphasize education to their children if college is out of reach. He decided to make hope real for the community of Tangelo Park.

We, as a nation, can do what what Harris Rosen did for Tangelo Park. We can give all kids hope. What it will take is universal early childhood education, which emphasizes cognitive and social development, and college scholarships for all.

 Philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, The Walton family (Walmart), and Eli Broad could put their money into funding early childhood education and college scholarships, instead of trying to micromanage something about which they have no knowledge or expertise: what goes on in classrooms. Federal, state, and local taxes could help to fund quality early childhood education and college scholarships instead of paying for useless standardized tests and the curricular materials to prepare students  for those tests. Individual volunteer efforts could focus on developing the vocabulary and thinking skills of 2, 3, ,4 and 5 year old children or in helping high school seniors and their parents to explore college options and complete the required application and financial aid forms. 

We could then see in 2018 the beginning of a national effort that would make for real student achievement, for real equity, and for real education reform. We could build a culture of hope. Let’s do it.

Onward! 

 

WHAT REALLY COUNTS

When success of a school is based on numbers – what percentage of the students graduate or how high the test scores are – all kinds of unethical practices occur. Most importantly, the students do not receive the knowledge and skills they need. They leave school uneducated. They suffer as adults. We are weakened as a nation. Read what happens when we set the wrong goals for schools. 

The false reporting of data and the disservice to students and, ultimately, to our country is pervasive. It happens right here in Connecticut, most notably in our charter schools. The graduation rates and college acceptance rates in Connecticut’s charter schools need to be scrutinized. For example, in 2013, Achievement First’s Amistad High School announced that 100% of its seniors were accepted to college. In reality, 38% of those who entered the high school in ninth grade were accepted to college, 25 students out of the original 64 ninth graders. The remaining 39 students were either held back in senior year or were no longer enrolled in the school. So Achievement First’s claim that it graduated all of its seniors was true only if you count the small percentage of students the school allows to be called seniors.

Our children are not manufactured products to be counted. They are human beings to be educated so that they fulfill their potential. We can’t get there by talking about numbers like standardized test scores, which will always be a reflection of the wealth or poverty of the students’ parents, or graduation rates, which can be manipulated simply by redefining the course requirements or eliminating low achieving students.

The only way to tell if a school is truly successful is to go see what the students are learning and how they are being assessed on that learning. Check out your local school and ask questions.

Go and visit Metro Business Academy, a New Haven Public School, and Pathways Academy to Technology and Design, a Hartford Public School. The teachers in both schools are teaching their students to learn and to think. The teachers are also collaboratively working together to keep learning themselves as teachers. And what the students accomplish will absolutely blow you away.

We can do it – one school at a time. We just have to ask the right questions. And those questions are about students learning – not about numbers.

Let’s Make History

Efforts to improve K-12 education over the past 30 years have been a bipartisan mess. Here’s a description, written by Diane Ravitch, of how we got into that mess:

               Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats. The Democrats Paved the Way.

BY DIANE RAVITCH

Of all the corrupt, unqualified, and extremist characters Donald Trump has tapped to lead his administration, none has generated the tsunami of liberal outrage whipped up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And with all due respect to Jeff Sessions, there’s good reason for the backlash: The billionaire Amway heiress from Michigan, who long ago made “school choice” her passion project, is the first education secretary in history to be hostile to the very idea of public education.

Prodded by grassroots activists and what’s left of teachers’ unions, Democrats went all out to defeat DeVos. George Miller, the former congressman from California, slammed her plan to create a $20 billion “school choice” program that would underwrite private and religious schools, calling it “a perfect storm of ignorance, money, and power.” Senator Al Franken grilled DeVos at her confirmation hearing, drawing out her jaw-dropping ignorance of federal programs. Senator Michael Bennet called her nomination an “insult to schoolchildren and their families, to teachers and principals and communities fighting to improve their public schools all across the country.” And when DeVos was confirmed by a vote of 51 to 50, over unanimous Democratic opposition, Senator Cory Booker went on Facebook, “frustrated and saddened,” to sound a sorrowful note: “Somewhere in America, right now, there is a child who is wondering if this country stands up for them.”

Listening to their cries of outrage, one might imagine that Democrats were America’s undisputed champions of public education. But the resistance to DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth: Democrats have been promoting a conservative “school reform” agenda for the past three decades. Some did it because they fell for the myths of “accountability” and “choice” as magic bullets for better schools. Some did it because “choice” has centrist appeal. Others sold out public schools for campaign contributions from the charter industry and its Wall Street patrons. Whatever the motivations, the upshot is clear: The Democratic Party has lost its way on public education. In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp difference between Republicans and Democrats on education. Republicans wanted choice, testing, and accountability. Democrats wanted equitable funding for needy districts, and highly trained teachers. But in 1989, with Democrats reeling from three straight presidential losses, the lines began to blur. That year, when President George H.W. Bush convened an education summit of the nation’s governors, it was a little-known Arkansas Democrat named Bill Clinton who drafted a bipartisan set of national goals for the year 2000 (“first in the world” in mathematics, for starters). The ambitious benchmarks would be realized by creating, for the first time, national achievement standards and tests. Clinton ran on the issue, defeated Bush, and passed Goals 2000, which provided grants to states that implemented their own achievement metrics.

The Democrats had dipped a toe in “school reform.” Before long, they were completely immersed. After George W. Bush made the “Texas miracle” of improved schools a launching pad for the presidency, many Democrats swallowed his bogus claim that testing students every year had produced amazing results. In 2001, Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s liberal lion, teamed with Bush to pass No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the government was mandating not only “accountability” (code for punishing teachers and schools who fall short), but also “choice” (code for handing low-performing public schools over to charter operators).

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, educators hoped he would return the party to its public school roots. By then, even Bill Clinton was calling No Child Left Behind a “train wreck.” Instead, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan doubled down on testing, accountability, and choice. Their Race to the Top program was, in essence, No Child Left Behind II: It invited states to compete for $5 billion in funds by holding teachers accountable for test scores, adopting national standards, opening more charter schools, and closing low-scoring public schools.

The Obama years saw an epidemic of new charters, testing, school closings, and teacher firings. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 public schools in one day. Democratic charter advocates—whose ranks include the outraged Booker and Bennet—have increasingly imported “school choice” into the party’s rhetoric. Booker likes to equate “choice” with “freedom”—even though the entire idea of “choice” was created by white Southerners who were scrambling to defend segregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.

It’s fitting that Trump and DeVos rely on the same language to tout their vision of reform. They’re essentially taking Obama’s formula one step further: expanding “choice” to include vouchers, so parents can use public funding to pay for private and religious schools. Democrats are up in arms about the privatization scheme, as they should be: It’s a disaster for public schools. But if they’re serious about being the party that treats public education as a cornerstone of democracy, they need to do more than grandstand about the consequences they helped bring about. They need to follow the money—their own campaign money, that is.

As Democrats learned years ago, support for mandatory testing and charter schools opens fat wallets on Wall Street. Money guys love deregulation, testing and Big Data, and union-busting. In 2005, Obama served as the featured speaker at the inaugural gathering of Democrats for Education Reform, which bundles contributions to Democrats who back charter schools: Among its favorites have been those sharp DeVos critics George Miller, Michael Bennet, and Cory Booker. Conservative funders like the Walton Foundation also give generously to charter schools and liberal think tanks such as the Center for American Progress.

The money had its intended effect. When Andrew Cuomo decided to run for governor of New York, he learned that the way to raise cash was to go through the hedge funders at Democrats for Education Reform. They backed him lavishly, and Cuomo repaid them by becoming a hero of the charter movement. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, often celebrated for his unvarnished liberalism, is another champion of the charter industry; some of its biggest funders live in his state. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters in the state, and has resisted efforts to make charters more accountable. As mayor of Oakland, he opened two charter schools.

There are plenty of reasons that Democrats should steer clear of the charter industry. Charter corporations have been repeatedly charged with fraud, nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. Many charters make money on complex real-estate deals. Worst of all are the “cybercharters”: mega-corporations that offer virtual schools, with high attrition, low test scores, and abysmal graduation rates. The biggest cybercharter chain is K12 Inc., started by former junk-bond king Michael Milken and listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

But it’s more than a matter of sleeping with the enemy. School choice doesn’t work, and “evidence-based” Democrats ought to acknowledge it. Charter schools are a failed experiment. Study after study has shown that they do not get better test scores than public schools unless they screen out English-language learners and students with profound disabilities. It’s well-established that school choice increases segregation, rather than giving low-income students better opportunities. And kids using vouchers actually lose ground in private schools. Support for charters is paving the way for a dual school system—one that is allowed to choose the students it wants, and another that is required to accept all who enroll.

This is what Democrats should be yelling about. And if there’s ever a moment for them to reclaim their mantle as the party of public education, it’s now. The misguided push for “reform” is currently being led not by Obama and Duncan, but by Trump and DeVos, giving Democrats an opening to shift gears on education—though they’ll lose some of that hedge-fund money. But if 2016 taught Democrats anything, it’s how unwise it was to allow the demolition of organized labor—including teachers’ unions, once a great source of money and grassroots energy. The party needs strong teachers’ unions and it needs their enthusiasm.

The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”

There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.                                                             ………………………………………………………..

So what does that mean for us in Connecticut? 

There are two immediate actions we need to take: 

1. We have to recognize that our political establishment has failed us. Our Democratic governor sold out for the money provided to him by the charter school industry. The Connecticut State Department of Education has endorsed student and school accountability measured by the lowest level of intellectual endeavors: standardized tests. The Connecticut State Board of Education has permitted profiteers in the form of the totally inadequate Relay Graduate School of Education to train and certify prospective teachers for our neediest schools. Recognizing the vacuum of political leadership concerning K-12 education, we must search for and insist upon new political leadership – both from currently serving Democratic politicians and newcomers to politics. 

 2. We must use the innovative leadership that we already have in our Connecticut schools. Three experiences I had just this week showed that leadership. First, I listened to students in a Hartford high school address an adult and student audience about their projects, such as starting and running a successful business, designing a mural to encompass major elements of African Americans history in this country, making music the center of their lives by creating and performing in a band, and making a documentary about a previously unrecognized medical researcher in order to give fellow students a sense of their own possibilities to achieve and change the world. Secondly, I listened to high school students in New Haven describe their social justice projects to political and business leaders. The students had each identified a societal problem, such as the Syrian refugee crisis or the lack of equitable funding of public schools in this country, researched it thoroughly, analyzed causes and possible solutions, and proposed a way to remedy the problem. Thirdly, I was inspired by a suburban middle school principal who described the school’s assessment practices. Teachers do not grade students on a one-time snapshot of their performance but rather work with the students to keep them engaged in rethinking, revising, trying again and again until the students do achieve the goals that the faculty has identified for them.

We have the educational leadership we need for the schools in Connecticut. We just need to tap into it. Our politicians must honor the expertise of the educators who put together these three programs as well as other talented educators across the state. Then, we will move forward. 

Let’s do it. Let’s make history. 

Closing The Real Achievement Gap

There‘s a lot of talk in Connecticut about closing the achievement gap between affluent students who are predominately white and poor students who are predominately black or brown, but there have been no effective actions taken and none are on the horizon. Instead, Connecticut gave up its own well-founded state standards and adopted the narrow and inadequate Common Core Standards, called them rigorous which they are not, and gave students standardized tests to measure their achievement of those quite limited standards. Then Connecticut waited for the test scores to see if the impoverished would catch up to the affluent. They haven’t and they won’t.

The poorer the Connecticut students, the lower their test scores. Standardized test scores, always and ever, are correlated with the family income of the test takers so it makes no sense to address the achievement gap by analyzing standardized test scores. The achievement gap that makes sense to address is the gap between those who succeed in their academic goals and those who do not, between those who graduate from college and those who do not.

That gap is a staggering one. For students who attended Connecticut public high schools and began college, the graduation rate is: 24.4% for black, 21.4% for Hispanic and 53.8% for white college students. Similarly, only 19% of Connecticut’s economically disadvantaged students who attend college earn a college degree as compared to 54.2% of their more advantaged peers.

Colleges and universities across the country have recognized this achievement gap in which the rich are sure to graduate and the poor are not. Nationally, 90% of college freshman born into families in the top income quartile graduate while only 25% of those born into the bottom half of the income distribution graduate. 

Colleges and universities are taking effective steps to solve the achievement gap among their students, but  Connecticut is not taking any effective steps to close the K-12 achievement gap. Colleges and universities are successful because they ask a question much different from the question that Connecticut is asking. The Connecticut question is: How can we reduce the gap in standardized test scores? The question that the colleges and universities are asking is: What can we do to improve student achievement?

As in so many things, asking the right question is the secret to success.

Research psychologists at Stanford University headed higher education in the right direction in answering the college and university question. They have for years been exploring the premise that students are often blocked from living up to their potential because of their fears about not measuring up to their peers and their doubts about their ability. They found that lack of achievement is often rooted in students’ feelings of not belonging to what they see as a community of achievers and considering themselves less academically able than others.

In one of the Stanford University studies, researchers provided students at an elite Northeastern college with a message about belonging. They informed them that everyone at their college feels overwhelmed and not smart enough and asked them to react in writing to that idea. This exercise had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study. The experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned grades in the top quarter of their class and cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

This study was replicated at a private Midwestern university with students who were the first in their family to attend college. The result was that the achievement gap between students who were the first in their family to attend college and the students whose parents had attended college was reduced by 63%.

In another Stanford University study, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out scientific evidence against the theory of a fixed intelligence that cannot grow and change. At semester’s end, 20% of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math and, therefore, out of college, compared with just 9% of the treatment group. This intervention cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.

At the University of Texas at Austin, a chemistry professor, David Laude, worked with the same hypothesis as the Stamford researchers. He identified 50 students who had lower SAT scores, were economically disadvantaged, and the first in their families to attend college. He taught them the exact same curriculum and gave them the exact same tests as the 400 students in his other class. The difference was that he involved the fifty students in a program which gave them both a sense of belonging to a group of achievers and strategies for developing themselves as learners. The result was that this group of disadvantaged students, who were 200 points lower on the SAT than students in Laude’s larger section, had exactly the same grade distribution as the students in the larger section. The impact went beyond that chemistry class. This group  of 50 students who, statistically, were on track to fail, returned for their sophomore year at rates above average for the university as a whole and three years later had graduation rates that were above the university average.

Laude has now been appointed senior vice provost, charged with improving the four-year graduation rate. He instituted a program, based on the same premises as his chemistry program, for 500 students who are low income, first members in their family to attend college, have lower SAT scores, and a graduation rate of 20%. These 500 students are given $5000 a year scholarships for which they are required to be in leadership positions on campus, participate in campus internships, and attend weekly lectures on developing strategies for learning. Through these activities, students gain a sense of themselves as part of the community of achievers and learn how to learn.

Also at the University of Texas at Austin, David Yeager, a psychology professor and former Stanford researcher, has been commissioned to address the dropout rate among poorer students with lower SAT’s and the first in their family to go to college. As part of freshman orientation, he asked students to read articles that address their sense of belonging in an academically challenging environment and that discuss the brain as malleable and able to grow and change its capability with effort. With this simple intervention, the University of Texas cut in half the achievement gap between advantaged freshmen and freshmen who are black, Latino, first-generation, and/or poor.

Many colleges and universities are instituting programs to address the particular learning needs of students who are poor and first in their family to attend college. Brown hosted the first Inter-Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference in 2012, drawing students from across the country. Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Brown and Yale are involved in a multi-year study in which they interview first generation students from low income families (usually an income under $40,00 year) to ascertain their needs. These programs for first generation college students seek to give students  both a sense of belonging and strategies for learning.

What can we in Connecticut learn from higher education? How can we close the real achievement gap? How can we close the gap between our children who become well-educated and accomplished human beings and our children who become dropouts from the world of education and accomplishment?

Here is a plan to close Connecticut’s K-12 achievement gap:

First: End high stakes standardized tests. With standardized tests, test prep becomes the curriculum, and all students – black, brown, white, poor, and affluent –  are deprived of real learning. Standardized tests also deprive the poor, the black, and the brown of a fair chance. Standardized tests hurt all children.

Second: Ask educators to design performance assessments which demonstrate what students can do, how they can think, how they learn, and what they can create in each discipline.

Third: Require each school district to create a curriculum which teaches students strategies for learning in a developmental progression from K-12.

Fourth: Hold all of us – teachers, school administrators, school boards, teachers unions, the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Connecticut State Board of Education, legislators, the governor – to the same standard. That standard is: What are you doing to bring all the students for whom you are responsible into the community of achievers?

Then, and only then, will Connecticut close its achievement gap.