Wide Variety of Factors Involved in Achievement Gap

By Rita Papazian
Norwalk Citizen

 Successful attempts at closing the achievement gap between white and minority students begin with educators and parents focusing on change both within and outside the schools, according to panelists at a forum last week at Norwalk Community College.

Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Corda joined Greenwich Superintendent Betty Sternberg; Stamford Superintendent Joshua Starr; Alex Johnston, the executive director of ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement; and Larry Leverett, the executive director of the Panasonic Foundation and a former Greenwich superintendent, on Sept. 7 for "Bridging the Gap: Where are We?"

The panelists each expressed a desire to close the gap, yet their approaches varied, with Corda offering the observation that "people don't want to talk about" some of the issues related to the gap, variables that affect a child's ability to achieve beginning with kindergarten.

"Every child who comes to us in kindergarten doesn't come to us from the same place," said Corda, noting that the variables at this level include the kind of nurturing a child has received, how well-fed he or she is, the quality of any preschool program he or she has had and the kind of parenting skills that are evident in the home.

"Variables that impact the achievement gap come from inside the school and outside," Corda said, noting that the gap is a national problem that dates back to the 20th century, when it was not considered a big issue. "Now it is a big issue because the future of a vast population depends upon getting educated."

Johnston emphasized the importance of bringing people together. Success comes when parents take an active role in their children's education and in strengthening the bonds between the school and the home, he said.

Sternberg, a former state commissioner of education, said she was drawn to her new post in Greenwich because the town, with its "tremendous contrasts," is a "microcosm of the state." She praised her community for its strong interest in education for all of its children and noted that success in education comes when everyone children, parents, teachers, the administration and the community at large takes an interest. "This is all about beliefs in what can be done and expectations," she said.

"In schools where there is success, you can see that someone has opened the door for the kids to believe they could achieve," said Sternberg. What distinguishes schools that have narrowed the achievement gap from others is the belief in possibilities and dreams, she said.

Leverett cited money, class and race as the determining factors in the gap. Drawing from his own experience as a student and a parent, he noted that educators have a history of tracking minorities into the lowest classes and suggesting trade skills rather than academics. He said all children should be held to high expectations.

"The problem is that perhaps we don't have the will that all children can perform at high levels and should be placed in vigorous learning situations," the former schools Leverett said.

Starr emphasized the importance of teacher collaboration, especially when programs and methods prove successful. Information about what works should be shared with other educators, he said.

"If people have an opportunity to come together and work as a community, then it is likely success can be replicated," Starr said.

The panelists offered a wide range of observations dealing with the prospect of success in closing the achievement gap, including the following.

  • Educators have to think beyond the community.
  • Communities can't put blind faith in a charismatic leader.
  • Communities need to have courageous conversations about class and race and not be afraid to bring up the issues.
  • Communities have to be open to data that may fly in the face of beliefs.
  • Educators must look at the best practices that achieve success in other countries.
  • Thinking that low achievement in a school system is acceptable is offensive.
  • Investment in professional development should relate to what teachers are doing in the classrooms.
  • Opportunities for teachers to get together should be built within the school day.
  • Principals need to realize that their primary purpose is to know what's going on in the classrooms.
  • The way education is funded is a huge barrier to closing the gap. Therefore schools systems can't wait for more money to change a system.
  • The focus needs to be on the teachers and the students in the classrooms.
  • Four-to-six-week teacher-generated pupil assessment is important to determine if teaching goals are being met.

Corda emphasized that school experience represents 25 percent of a child's day. "You have to understand that the way to measure progress is not by looking at a box score [from standardized testing] every year You have to add value to a child's life. This is very hard work. Given enough time and support, every child can learn." He said that schools are changing in a world that is changing rapidly and educators and students must be able to adapt to the changes.

Leverett summed up the tenor of the forum. "There's no mystery as to what has to be done for high quality results," he said. "It's a question of will."



Copyright 2007 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.