#WURDoftheDay: When Discussing Achievement Gaps, Let’s First Establish the Need for a New Response Model

by Kevin P. Chavous | Guest Contributor — K12, Inc. | @kevinpchavous

When assessing the state of K-12, there is always talk about an education crisis in America. And when previewing the topline data to compare ourselves against other countries, one could walk away believing that such a crisis does exist. American 15-year-olds were scoring under 500 on a scale of 0–1,000 in the 2015 Program of International Student Assessment, with the United States ranking 24th in both Math and Science, and a dismal 39th place in Reading out of 71 countries assessed. Of the 35 powerful Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, the U.S. is at the bottom: 30th in Math and 19th in Science.

Meanwhile, both taxpayers and the colleges they send their kids to are paying more than $7 billion annually in remedial education courses because, collectively, our K-12 system is failing to prepare nearly half of all graduating seniors for the basics. A Hechinger Report showed 874 out of 911 community and four-year college surveyed enrolling new students who needed remediation in the 2014–2015 school year. Nearly 23 percent of those schools were enrolling over half of their incoming students in “at least on remedial course.”

That’s not what we should expect or accept from a $20 trillion economy accounting for over a quarter of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.

But, unfortunately, as a nation, we’ve grown both complacent and unwilling to have an honest conversation about how we creatively address and solve that education crisis in America.

A big part of the problem is that when we assess the current state of American education, we’re not doing so with enough urgency. That’s why we should appreciate the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s effort at striking that needed and useful note: while most wait for prompting from the ongoing outrage cycle that cast partisan aspersions at who said (or didn’t say) what, it has taken the largest united consortium of Black newspapers to aggressively pursue that task. As it convenes this year, headlining their event is an earnest National Black Parents Town Hall on Educational Excellence to tackle the issue of where education is headed next and, more importantly, how Black youth are faring on that landscape.

Fewer open conversations on American education are more appropriate, more timely and more significant. Because the fate of our nation’s educational integrity rests on whether full Black academic success in the 21st century is achievable. You can’t have one without the other. In our conversation on K-12, the discourse fails to make that direct connection linking the lack of American educational preparedness to the stubborn achievement gaps between students “of color” and their white peers.

That “school-to-prison” pipeline we keep talking about has just as much with tragically dismantling the American educational system as any other factor.

Black students are about 16 percent of the public school system population — yet nearly half are faced with multiple suspensions through elementary and secondary schooling. In fact, they are 31 percent of all school-related arrests, facing suspension and expulsion rates three times as high as their white counterparts. Congressman Bobby Scott’s (D-VA) widely bi-partisan Youth PROMISE Act, which seeks to replace “tough-on-crime” approaches with a multi-level “coordinated prevention and intervention response,” is an encouraging policymaking first step towards narrowing and finally cutting that pipeline. While it has yet to pass, despite heavy bipartisan support, it’s an awareness of the pipeline’s impact on not just the African American community, but the nation as a whole.

There’s also much more welcome awareness of persistent achievement gaps and admission that old models aren’t working. As the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress report discovered 50 years after the seminal Coleman Report on academic equity, disparities between black and white students have barely nudged: for math, an average African American high school senior places in the 19th percentile, while in reading they’re placing in the 22nd percentile “of the white distribution levels.”

We’ve become both familiar and familiarly obsessed with these data points and many others. Yet, we’re nowhere closer to resolving what’s clearly a crisis. One primary reason is that few innovations are placed on the discussion table. Educators, advocates calling themselves “reformers” and policymakers gather in Norfolk for a spirited two-hour multi-faceted conversation on how to improve education for black youth, but few will venture beyond the scope of the traditional dawn-of-the-20th-century classroom model that still haunts and devastates American education to this very day. There is predictable consensus to increase public school funding, yet even the NAEP report above confirmed that per pupil spending in the U.S. “exceed[s] those of nearly every other country in the world” while “no research to date has defined the level that is necessary or adequate.” Over the last 50 years, school funding has risen, but the gaps won’t quit.

Such admission should, naturally, call for a complete overhaul and rethink in how we’re addressing the issue. For example, when more than 40 percent of incoming college freshman require remedial courses, we should consider that these courses are much more likely to prevent students from securing a degree. A 2015 Ithaka S+R study, however, found promising signs in the implementation of online “bridge” learning math courses as a possible solution towards “helping students close gaps before they start their first year of college.”

Yet, parents and their children hungry for a solution won’t read about in a headline unless they know where to look. We hear little conversation about how technology and other forward-thinking models such as blended and experiential learning could significantly lower achievement gaps, especially for black students in distressed school districts who desperately need it. Discussions on academic struggle should look to leverage these tools and modes of learning as opposed to categorically dismissing them as merely experimental supplements or the unrealistic, untested manifestations of shadowy political agendas.

No one is recommending that computers replace teachers — quite the contrary. But, as a 2014 Stanford University study entitled Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning showed “[w]hen given access to appropriate technology used in thoughtful ways, all students — regardless of their respective backgrounds — can make substantial gains in learning and technological readiness.”

In 2015, the Christensen Institute collaborated with the Evergreen Educational Group to explore a dozen diverse school districts that have already begun implementation of creative blended learning models — most are identified for their large populations of socio-economically distressed students, most notably the District of Columbia Public School system. Their findings are remarkable in the sense that there was, and still is, little recognition of the success patterns discovered: significant improvements in student outcomes where blended learning was implemented in smart fashion, particularly amongst low income students. In D.C., attendance has risen 3 percent while truancy has dropped 10 percent. Spokane, Washington’s graduation rates have risen dramatically by 23 percent. “Does blended learning work for low-income students?” the Christensen Institute’s Julia Freeland Fisher asks later. “Data so far suggests that the answer is yes, it can. But it’s a crucial question that the field needs to keep pushing.”

So, where is the push? The International Association for K-12 Online Learning has strongly urged school districts, for several years, to implement or expand online “Course Access” offerings to students as a way to enable greater performance and outcomes while closing gaps. As the Stanford Study showed, online and blended approaches do boost low-income student scores when planned and used correctly.

Families will never know that, because the conversation is constantly muted by a clash of political sentiment that overshadows a conversation on what works best for students. We won’t know how far we can go in eliminating divides until we become bold and try something new to close them. Because, at the moment, our repetition of the same old approach is simply fulfilling the classic definition of lunacy.

KEVIN P. CHAVOUS is President of Academics, Policy, and Schools at K12, Inc. and a noted education reform advocate. He can be found on Twitter @kevinpchavous