Yes, we can — close the achievement gap

Some Minnesota schools are already closing the achievement gap for poor kids and kids of color. They use a variety of strategies, focusing on individual student needs, with teachers working together and sometimes with longer school days and summer school. The successes show that we know how to educate kids – we just need to expand the successes across the educational system.<--break->

The St. Paul Pioneer Press led off yesterday with a stellar story on Dayton’s Bluff elementary school.

But Dayton’s Bluff – where nine out of 10 students live in poverty and almost one-third are learning English or are new to the school – is a school that defies the odds. In 2001, the school was overhauled because of dismal test scores, and student achievement has risen dramatically. According to test results released two weeks ago, about 75 percent of students were proficient in math this year, up from 19 percent in 2001. In reading, 69 percent were proficient, up from 24 percent in 2001.

Dayton’s Bluff outperformed all but five other St. Paul schools, and those schools did not have high levels of students in poverty. Moreover, Dayton’s Bluff has been performing at high levels since 2006. Among Dayton’s Bluff’s strategies:

  • For teachers – weekly grade-level meetings, observing other teachers in the classroom, giving and getting feedback.
  • For students and families – Achievement Plus programming with health and social services and outreach to parents, summer and extended day education.

MinnPost chimed in today with an article about metro-area charter and district schools that “beat the odds.” One of the common elements among the schools, according to the MinnPost article:

Many of the schools engage in near-continual assessment of student performance using so-called growth-model tests, which track the progress of individual students as opposed to schools.

Teachers, principals, district officials, and university researchers agreed that there is no single silver bullet that closes the achievement gap, but it’s clear that there are several strategies that – taken together with a large dose of high regard for teachers, cooperation among teachers and principals, and intense commitment to students – work to educate all of our children.

Teacher support is key. Instead of meeting only incidentally over a 15-minute sandwich at lunch, teachers need time to observe one another’s classes, to sit down together and share strategies, to plan together. Successful schools structure in the time for weekly, grade-level teacher meetings.

Individualized student instruction based on meaningful testing is also key. Massive, mandated tests such as NCLB and MCA are no help at all. They measure results of whole schools or grade levels, and deliver the information months after the fact. Individual student test results, delivered immediately and frequently, enable teachers to track individual student progress and to target instruction and remediation. That’s testing used to actually improve student learning rather than to judge and punish schools and teachers.

More time on task is needed for students who start at an educational disadvantage. That means extended day programs and summer school time.

Schools are part of the community. Families need to be invited and involved in their children’s education. Sometimes schools can also serve as the community center, to help deliver or connect to needed social services and health and dental services.

Some of these strategies are the same as those used by Chicago’s nonprofit Strategic Learning Initiatives organization, which has achieved similar success with turning around low-performing, low-income schools there. I heard SLI’s director speak in April, when Don Fraser and the Committee on the Achievement Gap brought him here.

Turning around failing schools is not rocket science, John Simmons told an overflow crowd in the basement of University Lutheran Church of Hope on April 16. Nor, he said, is it necessary to fire principals and teachers to turn around schools. … It’s possible to turn around school performance by empowering the teachers and principals, and the students and parents, who are already there.

Dayton’s Bluff proves the truth of that message. Its principal, Andrew Collins, is moving to the district office as director of turnaround schools. That’s a hopeful sign for St. Paul schools.

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