Behind the headlines: New reports offer insight on achievement gap debate
Emailed to supporters June 8, 2009
Behind the headlines
New reports offer insight
on achievement gap debate
By Frank Waterous
Senior Policy Analyst
With "Race to the Top" federal funding, the state's legislative interim committee on Public School Finance and other education reform efforts in the headlines, we thought that an update on new research related to one of the key topics in education opportunity might be in order.
Three recent reports on the achievement gaps experienced by low-income and minority students in our schools each view the topic through slightly different lenses but shed collective light on our understanding of this important issue. They also illustrate that common ground can and should exist between those who believe out-of-school factors must be addressed in order to close the gaps, and those who champion the role of school-based reforms.
Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success examines the "powerful role" played by six out-of-school factors common to the poor (low birth weight; inadequate medical, dental and vision care; food insecurity; environmental pollutants; family relations and family stress; and neighborhood characteristics) in impacting the health and learning opportunities of children and in limiting what schools can accomplish on their own. The report also discusses a seventh factor - extended learning opportunities such as preschool, after-school and summer-school programs - as a means of mitigating the effects of the other six in disadvantaged communities.
The report, published by the Education and the Public Interest Center (CU-Boulder) and the Education Policy Research Unit (Arizona State University), concludes that "efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are ... unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the [out-of-school factors] that negatively affect large numbers of our nations' students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them."
Educational Testing Service's Parsing the Achievement Gap II, on the other hand, identifies sixteen "correlates of achievement," including both in-school and out-of-school factors. It stresses that both sets of factors must be addressed if progress is to be made. The report, which follows up on a 2003 study of the same factors, groups the sixteen correlates into three clusters:
- School-based factors - curriculum rigor; teacher preparation; teacher experience; teacher attendance and turnover, class size; availability of instructional technology; and fear and safety at school.
- Factors present before and beyond school - birth weight; exposure to lead; hunger and nutrition; talking and reading to babies and young children; excessive television watching; parent-pupil ratio; frequent changing of schools; summer achievement gain/loss.
- The home and school connection factor - parent participation.
The report concludes that "the achievement gap has deep roots - deep in out-of-school experiences and deep in the structures of schools. ... Policies and practices that are likely to narrow gaps in achievement need to be broad and comprehensive if they are to check inequality at the outset of a child's academic career and create the conditions in which every child can flower, achieve, and attain in school and in life."
Finally, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools suggests that, beyond the moral dilemma posed for our society by educational achievement gaps, their persistence "imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession." The report, by McKinsey & Company, quantifies these impacts on a number of measures in terms of their effect on the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, the report states:
- "If the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations ..., GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher.
- If the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher.
- If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher."
The report's authors conclude that "our reading of the evidence suggests that while factors outside of school are certainly very important sources of unequal outcomes, superior educational policies and practices at every level - federal, state, district, school and classroom - matter profoundly for student achievement, and thus for students' economic prospects and life chances."
For our part, the Bell believes that both school-based and out-of-school factors must be addressed if we are to make progress in increasing student achievement and expanding opportunity for all of our children. Attempting to focus reform efforts exclusively on one area or the other will not produce the outcomes we desire.
As such, the Bell will continue to work for school-based reforms, such as access to high-quality preschool and full-day kindergarten programs, initiatives to enhance the quality of teaching in every classroom and expanded concurrent enrollment opportunities. At the same time, we will continue to stress that non-school factors such as families' access to affordable health care and parents' ability to earn family-sustaining wages must also be part of a successful state strategy to ensure that all of Colorado's students can succeed.