Equity & Diversity Opinion

Emphasize the Ambitious: Q&A With Kati Haycock

By Joan Richardson & Phi Delta Kappan — November 01, 2011 14 min read
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Kati Haycock, the president of The Education Trust and a warrior in the battle to close achievement gaps, reflects on the value of NCLB, what’s she learned about the task, and what’s required to move ahead, in an interview with Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

Kappan: When I think of Kati Haycock, I think of someone who is synonymous with fighting to improve the education of poor and minority kids, but I don’t know how you got started down that road. Tell me about that.

Haycock: One of my first jobs after college was at the University of California system where, at the ridiculously young age of 24, I was put in charge of the university’s efforts to respond to a legislative resolution that called on the system to attain—by 1980—a student body that looked like the population of California. We were a long way from that. The University of California was constitutionally prohibited from admitting anybody who wasn’t in the top 12½% of his or her graduating class. But even though we went after that goal very aggressively, it quickly became clear that until some pretty fundamental changes occurred in K-12, too, we were never going to reach that goal.

That goal took over my life. What animated me was how we could turn around the performance of the groups of kids who were behind. I came to believe that what was happening in K-12 was important to making that change.

I think of our work as helping to make our country better. When you consider the ideals upon which we were created, and you look at what the data tell us about inequality, it’s clear that our narrative as a country is far away from where we really are.

Kappan: So, there’s no childhood story, no growing up experience that influenced this career choice?

Haycock: I grew up in Los Angeles and, like lots of kids in Los Angeles at that time, I went to a racially mixed school. But, by the time I got to middle school, very few of my classes were mixed. Because I shared a Mexican culture—my father was born to a Mexican-American mother and a white father—there was always a question about why kids who shared my culture weren’t in my classes. So, I was confused and troubled by all of those things. But I think the early experience at the university really cemented my interest in this work.

Change in Thinking

Kappan: I want to borrow a page from Richard Elmore’s new book, I Used to Think ... and Now I Think ... (Harvard Education Press, 2011) and ask how your ideas have changed over the years regarding what’s required to close the various gaps. What did you think would work in the beginning of this work, and what do you believe now about what’s required to make those changes?

Haycock: It’s been a constant evolution. In the beginning, for example, there was an intuitive appeal about a preK-and-up strategy. It certainly makes sense that if you get kids started well, and keep them doing well as they move through school, they will perform well later on. Besides, elementary schools are easier to work with.

But I realized pretty quickly that this kind of thinking had led to widespread assumptions about “education as immunization.” Yes, starting early helps. The problem is that, even if you get them early enough, it doesn’t inoculate them if what comes later is of low quality.


POSITION: President, The Education Trust, 1991 to present. The Education Trust works to improve student achievement and close gaps between groups, kindergarten through college. The Trust focuses special efforts on schools and colleges serving poor and minority students. The Trust also serves as a voice in Washington on behalf of students, especially those of color or from low-income families.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1971. Master’s degree in education policy, University of California, Berkley, 1983.

PROFESSIONAL HISTORY: Executive vice president and chief operating officer, Children’s Defense Fund, 1989-91; founder, president, and executive director, The Achievement Council, 1983-89; independent policy analyst, 1978-83; director of outreach services, University of California system, 1973-78; associate dean of students, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972-73; founder and co-executive director, University of California Student Lobby, 1971-72.

AWARDS: Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education, 2003.

WEB SITE: www.edtrust.org

Experience has convinced me that change will occur faster if it’s driven from the top, from college or high school. When colleges demand, high schools change; when high schools demand, elementary and middle schools change.

Another example? I certainly have changed my mind around issues of curriculum. In the very early days of standards-based reform, we thought it was enough for states to make the goal clear and that teachers should be free to figure out how to teach to it. I think I was dimly aware that most teachers probably couldn’t do that very well, but I got swept up in the thinking that, with enough support, teachers could bring their practice into line with standards. It would take some time, but it wouldn’t take forever.

It’s the countless conversations I’ve had with teachers themselves that have convinced me that, especially for low-income kids, educators want and need far more guidance, support, lessons, units, assignments for teachers. We shouldn’t be leaving things like the orderly development of vocabulary and background knowledge to individual teachers to figure out. Even if they’re really good, they can miss something that’s hugely important. So, I’m squarely in line with the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) around more guidance, supports, lessons, whatever.

Kappan: Related to this, how has your thinking changed about the importance of federal policy as a lever for change?

Haycock: I have always believed that federal policy has a huge impact in shaping practice, for good and for ill—actually, way out of proportion to the number of dollars. Look at what happened after Title I got going in the late 1960s. Schools were introducing pullout programs, special stuff for low-income kids, and so on. We now know that works better for low skills than higher-order skills. But federal dollars drove that. Doing anything separate or special for poor kids did not occur before. So, what the federal government requires schools to do for its dollars turned out, from the earliest days, to have outsize influence on what happens.

Ironically, the cheating scandals provide another example. In today’s scandals, schools are changing answers from wrong to right; in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the scandals were about schools changing right to wrong answers because the federal government took those dollars away if achievement got better.

Federal law is essentially a shortcut to changing practice. It’s not a perfect shortcut. You certainly can’t neglect what’s going on at the state and local level, and we have to invest more in helping professionals improve. But federal policy is the most powerful single lever that we have.

Kappan: Does that mean you’re comfortable with the increasing federal role in education because of the power it has to make that change?

Haycock: If you asked me which level—federal, state, or local—is most likely to be concerned with low-income and minority students and most likely to move education policy in a way that will benefit them, it’s the federal level.

When you look at both recent and much earlier history at the state level, states too often fail to stand up for these kids. That’s, in fact, why the federal government got involved in education ... because states had a tendency to run right by the kids who arguably are most dependent on their schools.

Does that mean that I’m confident that the federal government will always play a positive role? No. But I have more confidence that the federal government will remain focused on producing more equitable outcomes for poor and minority kids than I do that the 50 states or the 15,000 local school districts will.


Kappan: We’ve had NCLB for about a decade now. So, what worked with that and what didn’t?

Haycock: People always thought that because we supported the direction of the law that we at The Education Trust always thought every piece of it was perfect. We didn’t. But it was a step in the right direction.

The main thing that worked was a clear signal that you could no longer sweep under the rug of average performance the underperformance of your poor and minority kids, English language learners and so on. The clear message to schools was that all groups of kids matter, and you can no longer skate with what your most affluent groups of kids are doing. That’s not OK anymore. The more frequent use of data, the work in schools to understand exactly where the kids are and, in fact, where each kid is, that’s good practice. But it’s a serious problem that it’s based on assessments that are less than what they should be and standards that are less than what they should be.

The bad parts come when you dictate consequences from Washington and when the same labels and consequences are applied to a 95th percentile school that happens to be performing poorly for one group of kids as to a 5th percentile school that’s performing horribly for everybody. Had the law been reauthorized after six or seven years like it was supposed to be, most of those perverse effects would not have been realized.

Kappan: The Education Trust has laid out its agenda for changing NCLB (Getting it Right, September 2011). I was surprised that you included a point about focusing on gaps among the top 10% of schools. Most groups are focusing on boosting the bottom 5% to 10%. You’re not shifting direction with this but fine-tuning your request. Tell me more about that.

Haycock: You can’t close achievement gaps by just bringing bottom kids up. You must bring bottom kids up, middle kids to high, and high kids to higher still. One of the things that we have to be hugely attentive to is that people have mislabeled the effort to close the gap as being solely focused on bringing up our most struggling kids. Yes, there are lots of poor black and poor brown kids who are struggling. But there also are middle- and high-achieving students of color who get little attention or stimulation because their teachers saw that they were black or brown, and they didn’t expect much of them.

(Researcher) Bill Sanders told me that when he looked at the value-added data in Tennessee, the group that screamed out “problem, problem, problem” was African-American kids in urban districts who started at a middle- or higher-achieving level and had the least growth of all groups. Over the next few years, we’re hoping we can help people understand that this is way more complicated than just bringing up the bottom kids.

Gap Mania

Kappan: In the last couple of weeks, conservatives have been banging the drum about “achievement gap mania,” saying that we’ve gone too far in focusing on achievement gaps and that this attention is actually endangering other students, the majority of students. What’s your take on that?

Haycock: The idea that there is an “achievement gap mania” and that it has come at the expense of our highest-performing kids is not in line with what the data tell us. If you look at NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), for example, there have been astounding improvements in the proportion of white children performing at the advanced level over the last 10 years. The idea that they’ve somehow been stunted while we’ve spent all this time and energy on poor and minority kids is just not borne out by the data.

It’s like the people who have argued that reading and math have absolutely driven out social studies and science. Once again, the NAEP data does not suggest that our kids are doing worse in those subjects; in fact, they’re doing better. That’s not to suggest that curriculum narrowing hasn’t happened in some—even many—high-poverty schools, and I worry about that a lot. But sweeping assertions like that are not in line with the data.

Our country is a long way from being maniacal about the achievement gap. If that really was the only thing schools cared about, they would not continue to disproportionately assign their least experienced and out-of-field teachers to poor and minority kids. They would not continue to direct higher-performing students of color away from college preparatory high school courses. The practices in schools, in other words, are still not lined up with a goal of closing gaps. Lots of people talk about the achievement gap, but the idea that it’s actually changed practice? No.

Knowledge to Practice

Kappan: Do we know what we need to know in order to improve the learning of all students and close the achievement gaps?

Haycock: It’s fair to say that we do at the elementary and middle levels. There are enough schools around the country—both neighborhood public schools and public charters—that have consistently high results for very poor kids that we know enough to do that at scale.

I’m not as sure at the high school level. There has not been nearly enough innovation, research, and analysis. There are very, very few high schools that perform really well for poor and minority kids.

Kappan: So, if we know what we need to know at elementary and middle schools, that begs the question of why aren’t we using that knowledge?

Haycock: Some of it is politically hard. Look at Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina as an example. Charlotte began looking at the differential effectiveness of teachers and how those teachers were assigned throughout the district. They realized that the patterns were entirely out of whack. In their predominantly black and Latino schools, there were very, very few strong teachers compared to their high-wealth schools.

That’s true in almost every school district in America. Do we rush the most effective teachers to classrooms with kids who come in behind so they could help them catch up? No, we do the opposite. But the task of changing those patterns is huge. There are lots of obstacles, including a status hierarchy among teachers that says your status comes, not from how good you are, but from how elite your kids are.

It’s a rough thing to do. And it is, in the short term, a zero-sum game. Charlotte has set out to change that in a very impressive and thoughtful way that was sensitive to the psychology and politics, but I can’t name even three or four other districts that have tried the same thing.

Curriculum is another example of something important, but politically hard to achieve. We can’t afford to burden teachers with the task of creating really great curricular materials and inventing their lessons every single day. But the politics of changing that—at the state or national level—are very complicated. Certainly, we have a unique window now with the Common Core standards and the second-largest teachers’ union squarely in support of that. But, there exists a lot of very tricky politics. Sometimes it’s not because we don’t know what to do, it’s because doing it is politically hard.

But on other issues, it’s not about politics. We don’t give schools and educators a good way to learn from each other’s successes. We have built no learning bridges between high-performing neighborhood public schools and other schools, or between high-performing charter schools and other schools. Similarly, we have few bridges that help struggling teachers learn from those who are more effective. Ms. Smith and Ms. Jones can be 3rd-grade teachers working in the same school, and they often don’t get the time to look at their results and say, “hey, your kids are doing much better on fractions than mine are. What are you doing instruction-wise that I’m not?”

We have an annual conference each year that features what we call “Dispelling the Myth” schools. It’s inspiring to see how hungry other educators are to learn from them. That’s not, however, what our school systems usually do with high-performing, high-poverty schools. They aren’t asked to share what they know with other leaders and teachers. Instead, they become pariahs, and people develop a range of excuses to make themselves feel better about why “those schools” seem to be performing better than theirs are.

Poverty vs. Teaching

Kappan: I don’t have to tell you that there is a divide over how much difference schools can make for poor children. There’s the group that argues that teachers can’t accomplish much in the face of poverty; there are others who say that schools and teachers can make a difference. You clearly come down on the side that says teaching and schools matter, and that they improve student learning. I wonder if there’s a false argument here, whether there isn’t a right and right on both sides of this.

Haycock: I am horrified by our country’s willingness to allow so many of its children to live in awful circumstances. That’s why when there are opportunities through Ed Trust or in my free time to work on those issues, I do. I think we need to radically reduce the number of our kids who live in poverty. It’s a hugely important national priority.

But what do we do in the meantime? We essentially need to make a choice as educators: Are we going to let the family circumstances of some children become a life sentence, or are we going to do what we need to do to enable them to break the cycle of poverty?

Our job is to do all we can to get all of our kids to high levels of achievement. We can’t just say, “Sorry, they’re poor. We’ll just to wait until their parents reach the middle class, and then we’ll educate them.”

Looking Ahead

Kappan: I wonder how optimistic you feel about the future, about the likelihood that we’ll get close to achieving the goal of closing the achievement gaps?

Haycock: I live in the world as an optimist. I couldn’t get up in the morning if I didn’t have hope.

And I do see heartening improvement. If you look at the 1990s, the gaps between groups were either flat or getting wider. That’s turned. We’re now making some progress in narrowing the gaps, with achievement up and faster improvements among black and brown kids. Some states are showing that we can do this even faster if we really try. If we hadn’t turned that corner by now, I don’t know how I’d feel.

But I’m not naïve. I know how fragile the changes are. We’re still early in this process of both acknowledging and acting on the problems related to gaps. We’re at a fragile moment in which anything that happens, whether at the state or federal level, could unglue what we’ve achieved. We’re doing our best to remain focused and hopeful, and in the meantime to build an army of educators and others who won’t let this focus go away.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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