All kids can succeed, but significant change is needed to help make it happen.
That was the message from Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a national policy group, in her remarks to a packed crowd at NYSUT's "Every Child Counts: A Symposium Dedicated to Ending the Gap."
"People say we're not getting anywhere," Haycock said. "That's absolutely wrong."
Haycock, who served as executive vice president of the Children's Defense Fund before signing on to lead the Education Trust, focused on the "ugly facts" of the achievement gap before showing how steps are being taken in New York and across the nation to facilitate progress.
Data show mixed results
Haycock pointed to research demonstrating progress statewide and nationally in closing the achievement gap among certain age groups. Reading and math gaps nationally between white fourth-grade students and students of color have been steadily closing, as are eighth-grade math gaps.
New York is tied for third in the country for improvement among fourth-grade math scores for African American students and second in the nation for improvement among Latino students.
But the news, Haycock added, is not all good. There are still far fewer students of color enrolled in college-track curriculum and African American and Latino high-school students are often several years behind in math proficiency.
Dropout rates also continue to be unacceptable, Haycock said. Research shows that, of 100 white students who enter kindergarten, 94 will graduate high school. Yet, only 89 African American students, 62 Latino students and 71 American Indian/Alaskan students will graduate. Further, while 75 percent of children from high-income families graduate college by the time they are 24, only 9 percent of children from low-income families graduate.
"What kind of future are we creating?" Haycock asked attendees.
Pockets of success
Haycock said that schools where transformational success has occurred are challenging the popular notion that there is not much that can be done about the achievement gap.
Haycock referenced Elmont Jr.-Sr. High School on Long Island, which serves primarily poor students of color. Through aggressive staff development and curriculum support, the school is now in the top 6 percent of all high schools in the state.
Other schools -- such as Stanton Elementary in Philadelphia, Capitol Elementary in Atlanta, Frankford Elementary in Delaware and University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass. -- have been able to achieve remarkable turnarounds, often resulting in near-perfect pass rates on state assessments and the narrowing of achievement gaps.
Haycock said schools that have had success closing the achievement gap often have six characteristics in common:
1) They focus on what they can do. Educators know they can't change things like poverty and where their students live, so they, instead, focus on what they can do to get students on track academically.
2) They don't leave anything about teaching to chance. They give teachers a very clear sense of what should be taught, what kind of work students should be given and what constitutes "good enough." This keeps teachers from lowering expectations simply because students are behind.
3) They set high goals. These schools don't just focus on achieving proficiency, but on getting their students to advanced levels.
4) They are obsessive about instructional time. Research shows that, by the time some schools account for holidays, conference days, school trips, and other events, the amount of instructional time each year is reduced drastically. Schools that have had success narrowing the achievement gap remove distractions and try to maximize instructional hours.
5) They are driven by students needs. For example, schools that are closing the gap provide extra instruction in areas where students need improvement.
6) Good schools know how much teachers matter and act on that knowledge. Studies show that poor students and students of color are often far more likely to have inexperienced teachers. Top-performing schools, by contrast, match experienced teachers with students who most need their help.
"We've got to address the perverse status hierarchy where status comes from how elite the kids are who you teach," Haycock said.
New York: challenges and hope
In its mission to close the achievement gap, New York must address some serious challenges, Haycock said. For example, New York currently leads the nation in funding for high-poverty schools versus low-poverty schools. That gap of $2,319 per student can add up to almost $1 million in an elementary school with 400 students, a devastating sum.
Still, Haycock said she sees many encouraging signs in New York. For example, Haycock praised a plan passed by the state Legislature to expand pre-K access and she pointed out that more New York special education students than ever are getting Regents diplomas and going to college.
From 2000 to 2005, New York City cut in half the number of new teachers in high-poverty schools that failed the licensure exams even once. Some New York City students, by fourth grade, are up to two grade levels ahead of students in other urban centers.
With the right support that recognizes the challenges of high-needs schools, Haycock said, students "absolutely, in fact, can achieve."