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School Law Spurs Efforts to End the Minority Gap

Ohanian Comment: Barring low-achieving students from orchestra and chorus to free up time for remedial English and math is called putting extraordinary effort into improving the achievement of minority students.

Below, Angela Valenzuela offers brief commentary, asking the reader to look beyond the data.


This article by Sam Dillon of the NYTimes examines the usefulness of disaggregating data by race in looking at the achievement gap. While that kind of information is useful, it says nothing of the collateral effects that occur (e.g., schools becoming test factories) when the test no longer measures the reform but becomes the reform itself. The irony is that the latter is more likely to occur in schools with lots of poor and minority children in them because of the ways that the tests are used (beyond mere aggregation/disaggregation of data). These kinds of analyses of NCLB are always too superficial to be valid. For it to be so, a deeper analysis of the system needs to be investigated as well.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond who spoke here in Austin recently reminds us how the numbers (aggregation/disaggregation of data) in themselves donít provide the info on how to minimize the achievement gap. Hence, mere activity and action are not necessarily synonymous with acting in an informed manner. Plus, politics is always a factor. We know from decades of research that well-funded & well designed bilingual ed programs are effective at eliminating the gap, but minoritiesí lack of political power & frequently poor leadership in our schools and districts keeps bilingual education from being well funded and thusly, well designed. Also, as noted below, other gaps (e.g., housing, poverty, employment) need to also be addressed as schools simply cannot do it all.


BOSTON - Spurred by President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, educators across the nation are putting extraordinary effort into improving the achievement of minority students, who lag so sharply that by 12th grade, the average black or Hispanic student can read and do arithmetic only as well as the average eighth-grade white student.

Here in Boston, low-achieving students, most of them blacks and Hispanics, are seeing tutors during lunch hours for help with math. In a Sacramento junior high, low-achieving students are barred from orchestra and chorus to free up time for remedial English and math. And in Minnesota, where American Indian students, on average, score lower than whites on standardized tests, educators rearranged schedules so that Chippewa teenagers who once sewed beads onto native costumes during school now work on grammar and algebra.

"People all over the country are suddenly scrambling around trying to find ways to close this gap," said Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor who for more than a decade has been researching school practices that could help improve minority achievement. He said he recently has received many requests for advice. "Superintendents are calling and saying, 'Can you help us?' "

No Child Left Behind requires schools to bring all students to grade level over the next decade. The law has aroused a backlash from teachers' unions and state lawmakers, who call some of its provisions unreasonable, like one that punishes schools where test scores of disabled students remain lower than other students'. But even critics acknowledge that the requirement that schools release scores categorized by students' race and ethnic group has obliged educators to work harder to narrow the achievement gap.

"I've been very critical of N.C.L.B. on other grounds," said Robert L. Linn, a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. But he called the law's insistence that test scores be made public by race and ethnic group "one of the things that's been good."

At least 40 states compiled scores by racial and ethnic groups before President Bush signed the law in January 2002. (In New York, scores broken down by ethnicity were first made public in March 2002.) But even though scores were publicly accessible, many schools felt little pressure to close the gap before the law required that they show annual improvement for each category of student, including blacks, Latinos and American Indians, or face sanctions.

"More folks are talking about the achievement gap than we've ever seen before," said G. Gage Kingsbury, a director at the Northwest Evaluation Association, an Oregon group that carries out testing in 1,500 school districts.

Whether all the new activity will have any long-term effect is a matter of debate. Some academics are skeptical that the gap, a measurable condition of American education since the advent of standardized testing at midcentury, will narrow significantly in response to any short-term policy shift.

"There's nothing right now to suggest that nationally we've begun to invest in poor children at the levels that would lead to widespread improvement in math and reading skills of black and Hispanic children," said Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of books on raising successful African-American children. Still, he said, lots of educators are trying.

"I've been in dozens of states talking to school boards, and in every case one of the critical priorities has been closing the achievement gap," he said.

Social scientists, noting that there is a measurable achievement gap even as children enter kindergarten, argue that its causes may lie not only in school policies but in an array of factors that include family income, parents' educational attainment and health care.

In a National Public Radio interview last month, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was asked whether the gap was closing.

"Absolutely," Secretary Spellings said, "every state in the country is showing progress."

As a success story she cited Maryland, where the percentages of Hispanic and black fifth graders demonstrating math proficiency, for example, have risen somewhat faster than those of white students, whose scores have also risen.

"We've done it by training our teachers and by identifying and helping those students who need special support," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent.

Educators nationwide are pursuing similar strategies. In the Pascagoula School District in Mississippi, where 43 percent of black sixth graders scored at the proficient level in math last spring, compared with 83 percent of whites, Superintendent Hank M. Bounds recently ordered all 60 or so district administrators, even directors of technology and security, to tutor low-performing students.

For Diana Krebs, the nutrition director, that has meant that after overseeing lunch for 6,000 Pascagoula children each day, she has driven to East Lawn Elementary school to work on arithmetic after school with four fourth-grade girls whose teacher said they needed extra practice.

"It's like helping your children with homework," Ms. Krebs said.

But not all states are focusing on the gap with equal energy, or in ways that will help minority children, said Enrique Aleman Jr., an education professor at the University of Utah, leaving him with what he called "conflicting views" on No Child Left Behind. Until last year he lived in Texas, where he said the law had seemed to turn his son Diego's elementary school into a testing factory.

"My son was bringing home practice tests every day, and that's not real education," Dr. Aleman said. "My view from Texas was that N.C.L.B. was hurting the kids it was supposed to help."

After moving to Utah, however, Dr. Aleman watched last month as the Republican-dominated State Legislature passed a bill protesting the federal law for what legislators called its intrusion on states' rights to control local schools. Dr. Aleman said he believed the lawmakers were simply shrugging off test scores showing Hispanics and blacks lagging, and he has joined with other educators to press for strict compliance with the federal law's requirements on highlighting the achievement gap.

"Here in Utah, community groups can use the law to highlight the educational needs of people of color," Dr. Aleman said.

In Minnesota, Vernon M. Zacher said he, too, found the federal law helpful in attracting attention to the needs of the 400 Chippewa youngsters in the Cloquet Public Schools.

Mr. Zacher, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa who is director of Indian education for the district, said that since the 1970's Cloquet had run an Indian education program that had often allowed Chippewa students to spend school time sewing beads onto native costumes while languishing academically, he said. The federal law has helped to marshal support for refocusing Indian students' energies on core subjects, he said.

"I couldn't have kids doing beadwork when they were reading two years below grade level," Mr. Zacher said.

Not all educators have found it easy to use the law to help low-performing students. At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High in Sacramento, a high-poverty school labeled by the federal government as "in need of improvement" for several years, the principal, Samuel Harris, said he has found charting new strategies difficult.

"Basically, everything they suggest that you do to turn things around, we've already done," said Mr. Harris, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

This year, Mr. Harris hired a math consultant to improve teachers' skills. He barred 350 low-achieving students - 9 out of 10 of them black, Hispanic or Laotian immigrants - from participating in band, chorus or other elective activities to make time for five hours of unbroken remedial reading and math study each day. He convened hundreds of students to the auditorium for a pretesting pep rally, and before they sat down for the statewide exams this month, his aides distributed free snacks.

"We called it brain food," Mr. Harris said.

On last spring's tests, fewer than one in five of King Junior High's minority students demonstrated proficiency in reading or math. Yet under the terms of the federal law, Mr. Harris could lose his job unless an additional 24 percent of students demonstrate proficiency this year, a large one-year leap.

Still, some schools have made extraordinary strides.

In Boston, for example, where Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant announced last summer that closing the gap would be the public schools' top priority, the Boston Community Leadership Academy raised the number of its African-American students who demonstrated proficiency in math last year by 20 percentage points, to 35 percent.

A key to the school's success, said Nicole Bahnam, its headmistress, has been careful analysis of student tests to diagnose where more work was needed. Volunteers from Boston Partners in Education, a private group, then tutor students in those areas during a 90-minute period that overlaps with lunch.

This month, Catharina Stassen, a business consultant whose specialty is quantitative analysis, and Jim Terry, a retired actuary, sat in the academy's library, tutoring five students, including Shatara Rutledge, in algebra. They worked on a problem that Ms. Stassen wrote on a plastic board: (b{+3} + 5b{+2} - 2b) - (b{+3} + b - 1).

"What do we need to do?" Ms. Stassen asked.

"Take away the parentheses, multiply by a negative 1, and combine like terms," Shatara answered.

"Shatara, you are brilliant," Ms. Stassen said.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times
2005-05-27
http://tinyurl.com/8aypc


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