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Fixing the ‘Opportunity Gap’ to Close the Achievement Gap

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 25, 2013 4 min read
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What would it really take to close the achievement gap?

The answer, according to a cadre of education scholars who have just published a new book, is to fix the “opportunity gap” that exists between children born into middle class and affluent families and those who are not.

Thirty years after the release of the seminal A Nation at Risk report ushered in an era of academic standards and standardized tests to measure how students were mastering those, “Closing the Opportunity Gap,” argues that until federal and state governments, as well as local school districts, devote as much time and attention to making investments in broad access to quality preschool, health care, good teachers, and rich curricula as they have to driving up test scores and graduation rates, the academic gaps between upper and middle-class kids and their low-income peers will never disappear.

“We’ve squeezed all the benefits we are going to out of measuring outcomes,” said Mr. Welner, an education policy professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who co-edited the book of essays, and co-wrote its first and last chapters.

Welner and fellow author Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor, were joined in Washington earlier today by John H. Jackson, the president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Schott Foundation, to bring attention to the book and to announce a national campaign that Jackson said calls for a “pivot from standards-based reform to supports-based reform.”

States need to embrace new formulas for paying for schooling by investing based on the needs of individual students, a change that they argue the federal government should encourage and support.

Darling-Hammond pointed to the international comparisons cited regularly by educators and policymakers across the political spectrum as a reason to push for school reforms of any ilk. Compared to nations such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, American students lag in academic achievement. But, she argues, those three nations pay much more attention to the spectrum of needs that students bring to school and provide opportunities to address them, whether it’s through early childhood education, highly-trained and highly-compensated teachers, or through cheaper and better health care.

“Other countries don’t allow for the concentrated poverty in schools,” that is typical in many American public schools, she said. “We can’t ever expect to compete with these countries, until we address those issues.”

Among the policy prescriptions advocated for in the book, and highlighted by the authors at today’s event, are:

• Addressing child health issues such as vision, dental and nutrition needs, and expanding access to quality early-childhood education;
• Providing equitable and adequate funding to eliminate big disparities in how much public schools receive;
• Making curriculum rigorous and engaging, extending learning time, revamping testing policies, and reducing out-of-school disciplinary actions;
• Paying teachers more, providing them with experienced mentors, and building relationships between them and social service providers;
• Focusing on English-language learners by recruiting and training more bilingual teachers and integrating them more with English-speaking peers;
• Passing housing policies that promote wider-spread integration of communities;
• Promoting school choice options such as magnet schools and integration plans based on socioeconomic mixing;
• Expanding access to libraries and the Internet

Darling-Hammond said that the new common standards adopted by nearly every state hold potential to provide rich and rigorous content to all students, but that promise will be squandered unless educators and policymakers commit to putting resources behind them.

“The standards aren’t going to teach themselves,” she said. If there isn’t adequate training and support for teachers to teach the standards and if the assessments being developed to measure students’ mastery of the new academic expectations aren’t done well, the “common core’s potential to expand opportunity will be lost,” she said.

The new campaign’s focus is similar to the recent policy recommendations released in a report from the federally-appointed Equity and Excellence Commission, a 27-member panel that hammered out an agenda for states and the federal government to pursue to help the 22 percent of children living in poverty.

Jackson, of the Schott Foundation, said that while President Obama’s recent commitment to spend $75 billion over the next decade to help states provide more quality early childhood education opportunities for low-income students is encouraging, he doesn’t see much chance at reversing the course of accountability-driven reforms over the three and a half years that remain in the Obama administration.

“I think they are in too deep” to change course now, Jackson said of the administration’s signature policies such as Race to the Top. “I think the next presidential campaign will be a great opportunity.”