In her final column for the Herald-Leader, Merlene Davis talked about the achievement gap. Actually, she talked about how there's been too much talk about the achievement gap, and not enough action. Fair enough.
But after all these years, her final contribution is wishful, but provides no insight into the practical realities of the work. There are after all only two ways to close achievement gaps. 1) Lower standards so that a higher percentage of all students can meet them, or 2) Maintain high standards, but seek ways to provide advantages to previously disadvantaged students.
Solution 1 is no solution at all since its gamesmanship damages excellence in favor of equity, producing a poor outcome for all. Solution 2 requires thoughtful, purposeful action that targets individual students in need and provides services ($) that, while they might be good for all, are only provided to those identified as "gap kids." Part of the problem here is that denying needed services to any student is unpalatable for most teachers, who generally prefer to do the most good for the most students. Given two students who need an intervention - one white and the other black - I believe most teachers would find it repugnant to withhold the service from one and provide it to the other, based on race. All means all. The result is that interventions provided to all may well increase the learning of minority students, but it also benefits majority students, and that tends to maintain or even increase the gap.
Davis satisfies herself that "Maybe there just isn't the 'deep true commitment' that is needed to change things."Can it really be that simple? On one hand, she is correct. If racism had never existed, we would surely be in a much better place nationally.
But this way of thinking suggests that FCPS could have ignored the social realities of the time and closed all achievement gaps by 1955, if only there was the deep desire to do so. Since that didn't happen, it is the desire that must be lacking. When teachers have a deep-enough-desire, the gaps close, and the problem goes away. In the meantime, we just blame and shame teachers and administrators for not being superhuman.
Of course, if deep true commitment was the solution, I suppose historically black colleges and universities would rival Harvard for results. Is the fact that they don't indicative of a lack of desire from HBCU professors? I seriously doubt it. After 400 years of racism and oppression, it is unreasonable to expect that there would be no residual negative effects for African Americans. The over-representation of African-Americans among our nation’s poor is perhaps the most powerful of its manifestations. Throughout our history, active measures were taken to assure that African-Americans were kept down through a set of “Jim Crow” laws that prevented any real equality, and seriously limited opportunities, thus perpetuating the generational poverty that already existed. And, poverty is well-known by educators to have a debilitating impact on far too many of our students, black and white. (Suggestions that the achievement gap was first revealed in 1992 is stunningly naive.)
Don't forget that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a significant narrowing of the gap between blacks and non-Hispanic whites on reading and mathematical tests between 1971 and 1996. Although the NAEP did not begin collecting data until 1971, the seventeen year-olds it tested in 1971 were born in 1954 and entered school around 1960. Their scores, therefore, reflect the cumulative effects of home and community environments dating from the late 1950s and 1960s including,
- National efforts to equalize opportunity and reduce poverty that began in the mid-1960s and continued or expanded in the subsequent decades [Head Start, compensatory funding for poor schools, affirmative action].
- Educational changes that were not primarily intended to equalize opportunity [such as increased spending and early schooling].
- Changes in families and communities that may have been influenced by efforts to equalize opportunity and reduce poverty but occurred mainly for other reasons. [Parents had more formal education, more affluent blacks moved to the suburbs].
But like Barney Fife with one bullet in his pocket, school superintendents have little power to influence national economic policy, so they are constrained to work within the system as it exists. It is this lack of ammo that tends to push superintendents into making broad aspirational statements, with little hope of realizing the goal.
Superintendent Peter Flynn flirted with Davis' approach by coercing the FCPS administrative staff to engage in a bit of magical thinking. In 1998, Flynn, set a goal for his administrators saying:
“Through our collective efforts, all children will read ‘on level’ by June of 2001.”
As part of his leadership toward this goal, the district’s administrators were assembled in Conference Room C and asked to stand on one side of an imaginary line if they agreed with the statement, and on the other side if they did not. Confidently, upper level administrators followed the Superintendent to the "right" side of the line.
Uncomfortably, most others followed. The brave (a mere handful) did not follow, and soberly looked across the line at those soon-to-be-praised for their faith. It was an interesting exercise in human psychology, because everyone knew what was coming next. Marlene Helm openly criticized the faithless saying, “If they can’t even say they believe it, how can we possibly achieve it.”
Viewed in retrospect, the few were, of course, correct, and everybody on the “right side” of the line was wrong. Flynn had presented an ambitious goal, one that was monitored with colorful charts in every school, but no new assistance was provided to actually help a student read. As the pretty charts clearly showed, the district missed its goals - by a lot.
Of course, Flynn and Helm were simply following the game plan advised by Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch at the time (before Ravitch recanted). "Celebrate great teaching, shame those who hold to the status quo, and remind parents that they are their children’s first and most important teachers," they advised.
Narrowing the achievement gap in our schools is likely to be our nation’s best chance to achieve ultimate racial equality. But, do we have the political will to do what is necessary to close the gap? So far the answer seems to be, "No." Today's political climate is markedly more conservative and political attacks on "entitlement" programs hold little promise for poor adults who are cast by some as worthless leeches unworthy of assistance - and that extends to their children. Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer, while the poor get poorer.
Commissioner Gene Wilhoit engaged in some achievement gap talk in 2001, when he launched the Minority Student Achievement Task Force in the six districts which included more than 70 percent of Kentucky's African American students (Bardstown, Fayette, Hardin, Jefferson, Owensboro and Paducah).
“Even though all demographic groups of Kentucky children have shown improvement in academic achievement over the past 10 years, the achievement gap that existed 10 years ago is still with us,” said Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit. “That’s unacceptable, and the work of the districts involved in this pilot program will help other districts close that gap and reach proficiency. It will help real Kentucky children do their best -- remaining true to our conviction that all children can learn at high levels.”
The Task Force was essentially a bust, but Wilhoit expressed the refrain that would repeat itself over and over again - anytime an education leader went before the legislature, or spoke to the press, the message was the same. "We've made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go."
Of course, it's a dicey business to judge school effectiveness on student test scores anyway. In “Which Achievement Gap, Where?” (2002) Skip Kifer argued that the most common methods of looking at achievement gaps used mean group scores and masked the fact that gaps exists across that whole range of scores. He found that in Kentucky “there is a negative correlation between the size of the achievement gap and the proportion of black students in the school.”
There is what I consider a naive view that backgrounds of students should be ignored when looking at whether schools are effective. At the same time there is an almost religious belief in the efficacy of test scores as the way to determine whether a school is good. Such views defy common experience and ignore research about schools and schooling. Some schools, for example, have relatively small amounts of turnover during a school year; others turnover almost completely. Some schools have huge amount of parental participation; others have virtually none. And, it remains true that the strongest within country correlations with test scores in international studies are based on the background characteristics of students.
This from Merlene Davis in the Herald-Leader:
It's time to move from talking about closing the achievement gap to doing it
State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday advised the Fayette County school board recently that "if district support of low performing schools does not immediately improve, all options must be considered to narrow Fayette County's significant achievement gaps at the elementary, middle and school levels."
The state doesn't seem to think local school officials are as serious about closing the educational achievement gap as they say they are.
Just this week, acting Superintendent Marlene Helm said, "We must do better. We can't just talk about it. We have to do it."
And even the board set aside $620,000 to help low-performing schools, and another $15 for each student receiving free or reduced lunches.
So we all ought to be applauding, right?
Fayette County education folks have a long history of saying the right thing about closing the achievement gap, and a similarly lengthy history of not doing it.
At a news conference May 26, Lexington NAACP president William Saunders said Fayette County schools are "beating around the bush and stalling like they've always done."
And that is exactly what Fayette County school officials have done for the most part.
In 1988, two Herald-Leader reporters wrote a series of stories about Lexington's racial problems. In one of the stories, then-Superintendent Ronald Walton said he was concerned about the lack of achievement of black students and that a committee had been formed to study the problem.
Helm, then an assistant to Walton, said more programs for "at risk" children would be put in place. "I think when you have the commitment, a deep true commitment, you can move," she said.
I agree. Maybe that is why we still have the same problems. Maybe there just isn't the "deep true commitment" that is needed to change things.
In 1997, then-Superintendent Peter Flynn told his top administrators to remain focused on helping disadvantaged children even though that objective was dropped from the board's annual goals.
"We know we can't have excellence unless we have all children learning what we want them to learn," he said.
In 1999, the Office of Education Accountability noted that the achievement gap first revealed in 1992 had not narrowed much by 1998. "This is an issue of serious concern for everyone," the director said.
In August of 1999, the local school board set another goal, this time to eliminate the gap by 2006.
In 2000, Superintendent Robin Fankhauser said closing the gap was the district's new focus. Other initiatives would go on the back burner until progress was seen. If that were true, things on that back burner should be quite cold by now.
In 2001, Jack Foster, one of the architects of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), said the gap "is of enough magnitude in the elementary schools that it constitutes an educational emergency and should demand immediate action."
Fayette County's response was, "He's pointing out the obvious. He's pointing out what we already know."
About 16 ministers, along with parents, community leaders, retired educators and activists, members of a "No Confidence, No Trust" rally, filed complaints with state and federal education departments, as well as the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.
A year later, One Community, One Voice, a blue-ribbon panel of educators, parents, teachers, government officials and business leaders, met to come up with ways to eliminate the gap. Then Mayor Pam Miller said, the community needed to take this problem seriously.
In 2004, Helm, then interim superintendent, said one of the biggest challenges facing this school district "is making sure that the public has confidence that we are focused on student achievement, that we are passionate about it and that we will do everything in our power to close the achievement gap."
In 2007, the third year of Stu Silberman's tenure as superintendent, some new programs and partnerships were forged.
Board member Larry Conner said at that time, "Is there need for improvement? Yes there is. Are we improving? Yes we are. Are we going fast enough? No we're not."
In 2009, even Silberman said the gap was unacceptable. "That keeps me up at night," he said.
By 2011, when Silberman resigned, the gaps had narrowed but were still unacceptable. "I wish I was making the announcement that all achievement gaps were closed," he said. "There is a difference between narrowing and closing."
In 2014, the gap had widened again.
And so here we are, more than a quarter century after the achievement gap was first noted in this newspaper and we have done little more than talk about it.
"They can talk all they want to talk, but if they haven't done it, we don't need to pick that person," Roy Woods, chairman of the Equity Council, said last year.
If history is an indicator of the future, that is exactly what we will end up with in Fayette County.
That is a very sad and embarrassing history.