Disrupting Patterns of Inequity
After decades of public policy aimed at improving the overall achievement of students, the gap that separates students from different backgrounds remains wide, and these gaps in achievement begin at an early age. Nationwide, there is a 27 point gap between White and African-American students, and a 26 point gap between White and Latino students at the fourth grade. While the gap is closing—slowly but surely—it is closing all too slowly.
Partners in School Innovation actively seeks to disrupt patterns of inequity in education by developing systems and structures that work effectively to close persistent achievement gaps based on race, class, and culture. To do this work effectively, we develop our own cultural competence by seeking to understand of how race, culture, class, and gender impact how we understand and respond to the world around us. We seek to understand these factors so that we can work strategically to change them.
Race and Racism
For educators, one of the most difficult realities of the achievement gap is its connection to race. To many, the idea that race and racism might influence teaching and learning is so disturbing that they deny its influence. Because the gaps between racial groups look a lot like those between richer and poorer students, many hold firmly to the notion that poverty—not race—is at the root of the gap. However, when we take poverty into account, the gap shrinks but does not disappear. For example, the achievement gap also exists in wealthier suburbs where African American students still perform less well than white students.
In addition to the increasing racial and linguistic diversity, more and more students in California public schools live in low-income families. The rate of children living in poverty has jumped by more than 10 percent since 1979. More than 60 percent of these children come from Latino families, a number which has doubled in the last 25 years. Almost half of California’s students receive subsidized lunches.
Of children in poverty in California, nearly three-fifths are immigrants. Growth in diversity—in race, language and income—is going to affect all sectors of our society, but public schools are being impacted most directly because of their early and intimate contact with children, making the already difficult challenge of closing the achievement gap even harder.
Cultural attitudes also play a part in the achievement gap. John Ogbu and Pedro Noguera, among others, have argued that cultural influences may explain some of the differences in achievement in the middle class between racial groups. For example, Asian students are more likely to believe that not doing well in school has negative consequences, whereas African-American and Latino students believe that the number of years they put in rather than what they learn at school is what matters. Such factors that may contribute to the achievement of some cultural groups, and we seek to understand these factors as we to work to close the achievement gap.
Ineffective Schools and Poor Teaching
What happens inside the schoolhouse—including the impact of racism described above—can make or break a student’s achievement. The research is very clear: good teachers matter in the achievement of students of color. Students who get effective teachers several years in a row will achieve at high levels no matter their background, while students who have just two ineffective teachers in a row will suffer greatly and perhaps never recover.
Unfortunately, disadvantaged students don’t often get effective teachers. In California schools with more than 90% students of color, 20% of the teachers are under-prepared, whereas schools with fewer than 30% students of color have only four percent of their teachers who are under-prepared. The disparity holds true across socioeconomic status as well. The number of under-prepared teachers in high-poverty schools is nearly three times that of more affluent schools.
So what can we do? One Approach: Student Engagement
National data on student achievement indicates that African-American and Latino students are on average one year behind their White counterparts by second or third grade, and three to four years behind by twelfth grade. A closer examination of achievement data clearly links students’ engagement level in school with academic performance.
When trying to improve student engagement, we must start out by thinking through a comprehensive strategy for addressing students’ cognitive, affective and behavioral needs. Without thinking through each of these domains, we may focus on strategies that only address one area. We encourage school leaders and teachers to use this tool to learn more about teacher practices than can support student engagement across all three domains of engagement, creating an environment that facilitates the transformative change we wish to see in our schools.