Closing Education Achievement Gap: Blue-Ribbon Panel Offers Blueprint

Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 2013

How do you decrease the achievement gap and increase equity—and excellence—in America’s public schools?

For starters, reform the funding systems that so often mean a child’s access to education is determined by his or her ZIP code. Then elevate and reform the teaching profession, ensure access to high-quality preschool, meet the non-school needs of students from high-poverty communities, and shift the system of educational governance to improve equity.

All big—almost impossibly big—goals.

The Equity and Excellence Commission, which recently released its final report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has already achieved one somewhat remarkable goal: unanimous acceptance of the broad-reaching recommendations that the commission believes could turn around American public education.

Given that the commission members include union leaders; district, state, and federal education officials; civil rights leaders; and top thinkers from all sides of the education-reform debate, that is no small feat.

“This is a call to action that we can and we must and we should do better for our children, and for communities who have historically been denied opportunities … and in doing so, strengthen our country,” said Secretary Duncan, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The report clearly lays out the scope, and importance, of the challenge: Math results that show the average African-American eighth-grader performing at the 19th percentile of white students, and the average Hispanic eighth-grader at the 26th percentile. International testing results rank US students 27th for math, and show just 1 in 4 American students performing on par with the average student in countries like Singapore and Finland.

“Our education system, legally desegregated more than a half century ago, is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race,” asserts the report, adding that “simply achieving a 90 percent graduation rate for students of color would add as much as $6.6 billion in annual earnings to the American economy.”

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The commission recommends a complete overhaul of the current system of recruiting, training, compensating, retaining, and evaluating America’s teachers, along with incentives to put effective teachers in high-needs schools.

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More than anything, said Mr. Edley of Berkeley Law School, he and other commission members hope the report becomes a “new polestar,” focused on equity and excellence, around which to frame education-reform efforts in the future—perhaps a replacement for the “A Nation at Risk” report 30 years ago which galvanized attention around education but hasn’t born the fruit its advocates were hoping.

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