Over the past two years, Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes has pushed through a number of measures designed to aid students who are not meeting academic standards, such as class-size reduction and extra time for instruction.
But will those efforts be enough to help the children who are struggling the most—the minority and low-income students who lag far behind their white and middle-class peers on the state’s new tests?
That’s the question the Democratic governor’s new Georgia Closing the Achievement Gap Commission will be tackling as it takes a closer look at performance disparities in the state and seeks ways to narrow them.
“We’re going to have some real challenges,” said Tom Upchurch, the chairman of the commission and the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a group working to raise achievement in the state.
The gap is illustrated, for example, by last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in mathematics. Twenty-five percent of white 4th graders in Georgia scored below the “basic” level, but 62 percent of African-American students and 57 percent of Hispanic children fell into that category. Nationally, an average of 61 percent of the black 4th graders who took the test fell below the basic level, as did 52 percent of Hispanics, and 20 percent of whites.
A last-minute addition to Mr. Barnes’ education bill this year, the commission was proposed by lawmakers who were concerned that African-American and Hispanic students would be on the losing end of the state’s new law banning social promotion.
Beginning in 2004, 3rd graders will have to pass a state reading test to be promoted to the next grade. In subsequent years, 5th and 8th graders will have to pass reading and mathematics tests.
The new rules about social promotion are part of a larger accountability program that will reward schools for meeting achievement goals and demand improvement plans for those that do not.
‘A Lot of Resources’
With just one meeting behind them, the 18 commission members— who include both rural and urban educators, business leaders, and legislators— intend to visit schools inside and outside the state to identify strategies that are working best.
Some of the commission members accompanied Gov. Barnes late last month on a trip to Florida to talk with Gov. Jeb Bush about steps that state has taken to address the achievement gap.
The group is also reviewing data from Texas, which strongly emphasizes minority achievement in its school accountability system.
In addition, the commission is seeking guidance from the Southern Regional Education Board, a 16-state compact based in Atlanta.
“We have a lot of resources to pull from,” Mr. Upchurch said.
At their next meeting, scheduled for November, the group plans to gather in the north Georgia town of Dalton, a carpet-industry hub, and visit one elementary school with a student body that is more than 80 percent Hispanic. About the same percentage of the 600 students at Roan Elementary School receive free or reduced-price lunches.
To communicate better with parents, teachers at the school have studied Spanish and worked to develop parent leaders in the community.
Mr. Upchurch noted, however, that the gaps in performance among students are not always obvious, especially in middle- class, suburban schools. The commission, he added, will not overlook schools that appear to be doing fine.
“They may look OK, but there can be children that lack language proficiency,” he said. “It doesn’t really show up until you drill into it.”
The commission will also examine whether more needs to be done to close the gap before children even enter kindergarten.
“The gap is there when children start school,” noted Barbara Christmas, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a nonunion group with almost 50,000 members.
Georgia has a public prekindergarten program that now serves more than 60,000 children, but Mr. Upchurch said the commission is interested in the entire first five years before children start school.
Franklin Shumake, a former state education official who now writes a newsletter on education issues, advised that the commission will need to “focus in several directions simultaneously,” and will also need to address the needs within alternative schools.
While often critical of Mr. Barnes’ school improvement efforts, Mr. Shumake said the commission has the potential to “perform a significant service to Georgia.”
Georgia isn’t the only state devoting attention to raising achievement among poor and minority students, said Jim Watts, the vice president of the SREB.
Other SREB members, including Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina, have organized commissions or task forces to study the problem and make recommendations.
As a result, last May, South Carolina’s African-American Student Achievement Committee presented its report, which calls for such strategies as paying more attention to black history in the curriculum, enrolling more African-American students in rigorous courses and advanced programs, providing teachers with professional development and data on the achievement gap, and improving resources and communication for black parents.
The growth of statewide accountability programs has given educational and political leaders more solid information to work with, Mr. Watts said.
“Although we knew that they were there, we really didn’t know enough about the scope and nature of these gaps,” he said.
He added that African-American legislators in many states, instead of responding defensively, now see this growing attention to the achievement gap as “the best opportunity they have to get resources for the problem.”
Watching the Economy
Now that Georgia is carrying out new programs to help struggling students, observers will also be keeping a close watch on whether enough money is made available to follow through.
The state’s economy has not slowed down quite as much as it has elsewhere. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have had a serious effect on business at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport— one of the nation’s busiest—and on Delta Airlines, a leading employer in the state that recently announced it is cutting 13,000 jobs.
Mr. Upchurch points out, however, that the state has always been conservative about estimating revenues.
“We generally have a surplus,” he said.
The group is expected to produce an initial report before the state legislature convenes in January and then provide more substantial recommendations before the session of 2003.