State Leaders Launch Achievement-Gap Effort

By Catherine Gewertz — December 10, 2003 3 min read
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Hoping to use their combined influence, black and Hispanic state lawmakers in seven states have launched a campaign to enlist families, communities, and policymakers to improve schooling for disadvantaged children.

The National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators launched the joint effort to address the inequities that fuel underachievement by low-income and minority schoolchildren.

Announcing the initiative last week at the black lawmakers’ annual conference in Houston, leaders of the two groups noted that disproportionate shares of black and Latino children attend schools where crowded classes, inexperienced teachers, and inadequate funding are commonplace. Those problems must be addressed if achievement disparities are to be eliminated, they said.

The campaign will begin in Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Texas. Those states were chosen because they have substantial populations of minority students and legislators willing to lead the charge, said Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat who is the president of the Hispanic lawmakers’ group.

It will focus on two areas: improving the “classroom experience” by seeking such changes as reducing class size, ensuring challenging curricula for all students, and increasing literacy; and by drawing experienced teachers to high-poverty schools with better recruitment, salaries, and training.

Common Ground

Recently, the groups issued separate policy reports pointing to the attention needed in those areas of education. Noting the breadth of common ground between them, the groups decided to work together, said Ohio state Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat who is the chairwoman of the black caucus’ precollegiate education committee.

The campaign has been fueled by the alarm of many state officials at indicators of the achievement gap.

The “wake-up call” in Texas, Sen. Van de Putte said, was unearthing a dropout picture that was worse than that outlined by the state’s own data. In Ohio, Sen. Prentiss said, the first-ever statewide achievement data broken down by race and ethnicity, released in the spring of 2002, showed black youngsters lagging behind whites and helped catapult the state into action.

Raising Awareness

The two groups’ campaign is one of many efforts undertaken to address the stubborn problem often referred to as the “achievement gap.” Researchers point to multiple factors that produce academic performance disparities among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, ranging from the home environment to state policy.

One of the most recent reports on the achievement gap examined 14 indicators linked to learning, such as low birthweight and how often parents read to children. On many, black and Latino youngsters showed pronounced disadvantages in their preschool years (“Study Probes Factors Fueling Achievement Gaps,” Nov. 26, 2003.)

The campaign by the caucuses of black and Hispanic state lawmakers is designed to embrace as many of those factors as possible by forging partnerships that include state and local lawmakers, opinion leaders, community groups, and families. It will be modeled after an effort already under way in Ohio, led by Sen. Prentiss.

Ohio’s campaign combines lawmaking—the state legislature committed $20 million to the current two-year budget to help academically struggling schools—with community activism, as advocates travel from city to city raising awareness on such issues as the importance of parents reading to their children.

In the new program, legislators in the seven participating states will advocate for sufficient funding and changes in state law likely to improve the classroom experience and strengthen the corps of teachers, Sen. Van de Putte said. For example, she said that Texas legislators changed state law to require that all students automatically be enrolled in college-preparatory curriculum unless they opt out.

Sen. Prentiss said that while state lawmakers can play a key role, the campaign is “about much more than legislation.” She envisions community groups working with parents to bolster their children’s literacy, and helping teachers become “culturally competent” to better reach their students.

“It’s about shared responsibility,” she said. “It’s about helping everyone see, up and down the line, what they can do to close the gap.”

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