Call An End To Closing The Achievement Gap

 

We hear so often, including from the new Connecticut Commissioner of Education, that the most important goal for K-12 education is to close the achievement gap. Well, what if it isn’t? What if that goal to have students affected by poverty and racism achieve standardized test scores as high as students of privilege is not only an impossible goal, because standardized test scores are correlated with family income, but one that is damaging to all K-12 students in this country?

Equating achievement with high standardized test scores does a terrible injustice to all of our children. What if we gave up on closing the achievement gap and gave up on standardized testing? What then could our schools look like?

A picture of what those elementary, middle, and high schools could look like is provided by James Hatch, a first year student at Yale who is a 52 years old retired Navy SEAL, covered with tattoos and accompanied by a service dog. Read his story here. 

James Hatch began his college education afraid of the academic competition from his classmates but left that behind when he became engaged in shared inquiry with a broad range of learners and was encouraged by a professor to recognize his own good mind and not see himself in competition with other students. He developed an appreciation for the diversity of experiences that the other students brought to class discussions and valued their questions and their passion. Through both the subject matter of his classes and interactions with his classmates, he began to think in new ways and see the world differently. He determined his life’s goal – to lead by building bridges between those who are different. He was transformed by his education.

From my experience as a teacher and an administrator in elementary, middle, and high schools, I know that we can offer that kind of education to all of our students. In grades kindergarten through grade 12, students can be taught to learn in collaboration with others so that they see that there is more than one perspective or one interpretation. They can be taught to question rather than merely to answer so that they become deep and innovative thinkers. They can see themselves as learners and thinkers because that is what their teachers encourage them to be. They can develop skills that lead them to believe in themselves. They can fall in love with learning. They can be transformed.

But none of that will happen if the students’ learning is measured by standardized tests. And none of this will happen if closing the achievement gap is the national goal.

 

On What Page Are The New Connecticut Commissioner of Education And The State Board Of Education?

After the embarrassing and ungracious offering of the job of  Connecticut  Commissioner of Education to one person, withdrawing the offer, and then offering the job to a second person, the reason given to the public for choosing the second person was that the State Board of Education want a Commissioner with whom it is “on the same page”. But what is that page? A good place to start looking for that page is with the goals of the new Commissioner.

Miguel  Cardona, the next Connecticut Commissioner of Education, stated that his three goals are: 

  1. Make a positive impact on graduation rates.
  2. Close the achievement gap.
  3. Ensure that all students have increased access to opportunities and advantages that they need to succeed in life.

Those goals have a familiar ring to them. The history of Connecticut trying to meet those goals is not a proud one. But maybe that “new page” that the new Commissioner and the State Board of Education are on is one of a dramatic new vision and radical new actions. What could that vision and those radical new actions look like?

First, would be to change the term “graduation rate”  to something like the graduating of well-educated high school students. Currently, graduation rates make good headlines but can mean very little in terms of student learning.

“Credit retrieval” is a common practice in public schools with low graduation rates. “Credit retrieval” allows students to make use of often dubious computer programs that, in no way, equal courses in academic subjects, yet  the students get credit for the academic courses. In doing so, students increase the graduation rate for their schools but do not have adequate learning experiences.

Charter schools have another way to increase their graduation rates. They “counsel out” students who are likely to not graduate before they get to be seniors which leaves only a pre-selected group as seniors and, unsurprisingly, they all graduate. And lo and behold, the charter school has a high graduation rate. For example, one year at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy in New Haven, 25 students out of 25 students in the senior class graduated, but 64 students had been in that class as ninth graders.

A visionary way to increase the number of students who receive a high school education is to not count the number of students who receive high school diplomas but rather count how many of the students who begin a school as ninth graders complete the coursework necessary for graduation. For example, some innovative public high schools hold Saturday classes with actual teachers instead of plugging kids into commuter programs. The applause should be given to high schools who deliver a quality education to all the students who begin their high school education in the school not to the schools who either give credits without the academic content and skills or who dismiss those who won’t make for a good statistic.

It is then that Connecticut students will have the tools for their future and the State Board of Education and the new Commissioner will have made a difference in the lives of our children and in the quality of our state. Increasing graduation rates, as it has been addressed in the past, gets us nowhere.

Also, increasing the achievement gap is a hackneyed expression that needs new vision. That vision could begin with redefining “achievement ” and redefining “gap”.  In Connecticut as well as nationally, achievement, since the publication on A Nation at Risk, has meant the attainment of good standardized test scores. Standardized test scores are always correlated with the income of the parents of the students taking the test. Therefore, we can raise test scores by getting wealthier kids into a school. The other way to raise those scores is to teach to the test. All commercial test prep courses and online free test prep courses claim that taking those prep courses will improve test scores. And they do. They do because standardized tests measure only one skill: the ability to take a standardized test. But that is not achievement.

Achievement in the 21st century means that students are engaged learners who are able to think critically, problem solve, collaborate with others, demonstrate initiative, speak and write effectively, access and analyze information, explore their own questions, and use their imagination as described in The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner of Harvard University. No standardized test has ever, or can ever, measure those skills.

So the goal of “closing the achievement gap” will serve only to highlight the disparity between the affluent and the poor. Even more importantly, the goal of “closing the achievement gap”, as measured by standardized test scores,  guarantees that the children in Connecticut who most need a quality education will be relegated to test prep in a school’s efforts to raise its standardized test scores and will continue to suffer from their lack of real teaching and real learning long after they leave our schools.

As for the “gap”, the gap that we should be addressing is not the gap between the standardized test scores of the kids in Wilton, Madison, Farmington, and Glastonbury with the standardized test scores of the kids in Hartford, Willimantic, Bridgeport, and Waterbury, but the gap between what all kids can do before we teach them with what they can do after we teach them. We should be working our brains full-time exploring how to help each kid to reach further, to know more, to try harder, and to accomplish what that kid never thought possible. That’s the gap our schools should be closing: the gap between students’ current assumptions about their possibilities as thinkers and learners and their eventual accomplishments. That is a goal with a vision that is worthy of our energy and investment as a state.

And what are those ” opportunities and advantages that children need to succeed in life”? We know exactly what they are because many of Connecticut’s children already have them. They are the opportunities and advantages of many of the children in our affluent, largely white schools. They are the opportunities and advantages denied to other children in Connecticut due to poverty, income inequality, and racism. The new Commissioner and the State Board of Education can take on these underlying problems of poverty and racism that affect children for every minute they are in school and which any school cannot prevail against without appropriate funding, personnel, academic resources, and social services. Looking at the big picture with its complex causes beyond the classrooms will take vision and strong political action. It will switch the narrative from one of “failing public schools” to one of how can we adults and taxpayers not fail our public schools.

Given the recent history of the leadership of public education in Connecticut, it probably is a vain wish that the “same page” of the Connecticut State Board of Education and the new Connecticut Commissioner of Education will be one of vision and bold action, but without dreams where are we?   As the song says: “You gotta have a dream or how you gonna have a dream come true?”

 

 

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.