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5 Things Schools Can do to Close Achievement Gaps

by Jenny Sue Flannagan, Ed.D.



Maybe you are like me and simply can’t believe some of the things we are seeing in education today. For example, I have been in education for thirty years and never thought I would hear that it’s racist to teach children to find the right answer to a math problem. Or that a school district could legally make layoff decisions based on skin color. This past spring, I was floored when a friend who is a highly effective teacher told me that she was taking a class to better understand how her whiteness has contributed to her racism—even though she didn’t think she was a racist.

For my whole career as a teacher and administrator, examining racial/ethnic data has been part of my job. Investigating where and why we had gaps in student learning was important if we were to ensure all children had the opportunity to get a high-quality education. So much money, time, and energy has been invested toward closing achievement gaps, but those gaps still exist. In some cases, thanks to disruptions from COVID, they’ve grown even wider. But I wonder if there isn’t another reason that scores are so stagnant.



A Loss of Focus


I believe we have lost our focus. Instead of focusing on the various content subjects that would give students a set of core knowledge and skills, we are using valuable instructional time to show students how disparities are the result of racism. In a high school English class, instead of analyzing a text to identify an author’s purpose, students are taught to recognize their own privilege. In a math lesson, students are asked to analyze the wealth gap between black and white by constructing algebraic functions that represent the relationship between time and earnings from a job.

In these examples, very complex issues have been reduced to the simple construct of race, and the important skills and content found within the disciplines have been lost. Today, many states are adopting similarly designed educational resources. This educational vision is being articulated by Ibram X. Kendi, one of today’s most prominent voices on race. This vision includes an increased focus on race, all the way down to preschools.


The end goal here is “equity,” or equality of outcome (rather than equality of opportunity). According to Kendi, if this kind of “equity” means financial resources must be shifted from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing one, so be it—even if the result is discrimination. In fact, the prevailing message in his book, How to Be an Antiracist, is that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

But discrimination according to skin color—whether black or white—is wrong. And it’s unbiblical. Race-based discrimination is nothing more than the sin of partiality (James 2, Deut. 16:19, Rom. 2:11, Eph. 6:9).


In addition, simply shifting funds does not work—at least not according to history. Since the creation of Title I in 1965, over $100 billion have been spent to ensure that economically disadvantaged children receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education. As of June 15, 2022, over $666.9 billion, or $13,185 per pupil, is spent on education annually. But a 2013 study found that per-pupil expenditures did not correlate with effectiveness. In fact, the study, by Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, found that a resource-solution approach lowered school effectiveness.


I believe if we are to better educate children and close the achievement gap, we must set aside race-based ideologies and instead go back to the basics. As teachers, we must use research-based practices that have been shown to help close achievement gaps.



What Works? Best Practices of Successful Charter Schools


Several proven practices emerged from a 2013 study of successful charter schools. In this study, Dobbie and Fryer pinpointed five “best practices” that contributed to about 45% of charter schools’ effectiveness. Here they are, along with some ideas of how teachers can adopte elements of them this year.


1. Frequent Feedback to Teachers

What the Research Indicated:

Teachers in high-achieving charter schools received feedback 15.89 times per semester, compared to 10.23 times at other charter schools.

What You Can Do This Year:

Proverbs 4:7 reminds us to seek the wisdom to make good judgements. Let’s face it: as teachers, we see our classroom from our vantage point only. We may miss that a child is struggling with an activity, or that our directions were unclear. Through classroom observation, an administrator or other peer can offer valuable insights. When I observe student teachers, for instance, I track how much time is spent, both on instruction and on transitions between activities. I once noted that a teacher spent almost ten minutes giving directions. After the lesson, we discussed how to simplify the directions, making more time for actual learning.

Another idea is to seek creative professional-development methods for teacher learning. With Lesson Study, a group of teachers work together on a targeted area for developing students’ learning. They use existing evidence to collaboratively research, plan, teach, and observe a series of lessons, and they use ongoing discussion, reflection, and expert input to track and refine their interventions. Approach your administrator with this model and see how your school can incorporate elements of it into professional development.

2. Data-driven Instruction

What the Research Indicated:

Higher-achieving schools used data to track student progress and used more differentiation strategies compared to lower-achieving schools.

What You Can Do This Year:

Before starting a unit, a teacher can conduct a quick pre-assessment to identify students’ diverse needs, abilities, and levels of understanding. For example, consider a first-grade classroom that is learning to tell time. Learning objectives include identifying the parts of a clock, demonstrating a given time using a model clock, and writing time to the hour and half-hour. With pre-assessment data, the teacher can first identify who needs to work on which of these skills and concepts, and then create flexible groups to customize learning for all students.

This development of groups is called differentiation. Quality differentiation takes time, but its use of data helps ensure all students are challenged. This is real equity in the classroom! Later, the teacher can continue to use data to develop remediation plans for any students who are still struggling.

3. Increased Instructional Time

What the Research Indicated:

High-achieving schools had school years between 189 and 193 days, with a “day” being eight hours long.

What You Can Do This Year:

While you may not be able to change how long a student is in school, you can focus on ensuring the available learning time is not wasted. Often, as teachers, we work in isolation and never get the chance to learn about what is taught at different grade levels. Get with a teacher from a grade level above or below yours. Ask to see their curriculum documents, and see what standards they are responsible for teaching. Examine what is taught, and compare it to your grade-level content. Are you spending too much time reviewing or re-teaching foundational content that was taught the previous year? Or did you miss teaching something completely?

When we work toward coherence of content from one grade level to another, we can reduce unnecessary repetition, ensure that the necessary material is covered, and design effective lessons that help students develop skills at a greater depth of understanding.

4. High-dosage Tutoring

What the Research Indicated:

High-achieving schools used tutoring groups of six or fewer students that met four or more times a week.

What You Can Do This Year:

Create or find a good tutoring model such as AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), which features frequent tutoring sessions and uses teacher-provided data to determine the focus of each session. While such programs do have a financial cost, think about with how your school could implement a tutoring program that uses these elements. Consider reaching out to a local church to identify volunteers for student tutoring groups. Some churches may already have resources in place; in the past, I’ve participate with my own church through Kids Hope USA to mentor and tutor students.

5. High Expectations

What the Research Indicated:

High-achieving charter schools were more likely to have higher academic and behavioral expectations and to have school-wide disciplinary policies.

What You Can Do This Year:

Even though students may have different backgrounds and capabilities, all students can learn—and a good teacher knows this. Setting and keeping high academic standards begins with this knowledge. Rather than wonder if the students can learn the content, ask yourself how you can teach it most effectively. And let students know you believe in them and their ability to learn, even when the material is difficult. Individualized encouragement is important as well; rather than telling a student “Good job,” tell them what they did well. For example, “I’m proud of you for taking the time to slow down and check your work.”


Expectations, whether academic or behavioral, are ineffective without clarity and consistency. To foster good behavior in the classroom, work with your students to develop expectations for behavior in whole group and small groups, and for outside the classroom. Set up consequences for when those expectations are not met. Children crave and need structure and stability. When expectations are clear and consequences consistent, students learn there is no point in pushing limits because the consequences are always the same.



Focusing on What Works

Instead of teaching race-based ideology, and instead of continuing to do what we have done since 1965, just under a different name (i.e., “equity”), we should heed the wisdom of Tolkien’s character, Gandalf, who said, “all you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” Let’s not waste the next twenty years “hoping” we get it right; let’s focus on what works. Our students deserve the best chance to rise above their circumstances.



References:

Dobbie, Will, and Roland G. Fryer. 2011. “Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3 (3): 158–87. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.3.3.158.

Dobbie, Will, and Roland G. Fryer Jr. 2013. "Getting beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City." American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5 (4): 28-60.

Dobbie, Will, and Roland G. Fryer. 2015. “The Medium-Term Impacts of High-Achieving Charter Schools.” Journal of Political Economy 123 (5): 985–1037. https://doi.org/10.1086/682718.


 

Jenny Sue Flannagan, Ed.D. is Associate Professor and Teacher Education Director of Student Teaching at Regent University. You can learn more about her credentials, publications, awards, and teaching philosophy here.

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