Schools cannot ensure a quality education for all students unless they are able to determine and measure what success looks like and be held accountable for academic outcomes. In addition to clear measures designed to track and improve the academic success of individual students, comprehensive research is also needed to evaluate the effectiveness of small and large-scale programs.
In affluent suburban districts and low-income urban areas, academically high-performing schools have one thing in common: a consistently rigorous curriculum. Requiring that all students participate in high-level coursework is an important signal that the school believes that all students have the ability to learn and succeed. While some critics have argued that a challenging curriculum will leave underperforming students behind, schools that have raised the academic bar -- and provided students with the supports they need to meet these expectations -- report a significant increase in academic achievement and an overall reduction in the number of school drop-outs.
When the San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) decided to raise academic standards, its School Board took the bold step of requiring all its graduating high school students to complete the University of California system’s academic entrance requirements. Despite fears that more stringent standards would push out academically vulnerable students, the District’s evaluation data showed the exact opposite: specific academic improvements and higher overall graduation rates, especially among Latino students.
To help close the achievement gap in math and science, SJUSD paid particular attention to improving high level course access for Latino and other minority students. It eliminated remedial and advanced classes through the ninth grade so that all students received the same foundation for the core curriculum. In addition, it required Algebra as the entry level math course and eliminated "gut" courses like business math and physical science. By eliminating "tracking" (programs that divide students into "gifted and talented" and underperforming groups) and removing the limits on participation AP coursework, SJUSD has succeeded in establishing high expectations and ensuring that all its graduates are adequately prepared for college.
From designing basic achievement tests to increasing graduation rates for students at-risk, schools must lay out clear standards for academic success and ensure that all their systems are aligned around helping all students reach those goals. This is especially important for children in special education programs, English-language learners and other students who may need an extra layer of supports to succeed.
In addition to clear standards, schools must have accurate ways to measure both individual academic achievement and the overall success of their programs. In today’s policy environment, the controversy surrounding testing standards has sometimes obscured the invaluable role that achievement testing and other evaluation data play in providing baseline information to close academic gaps. Quality research and evaluation are not only important for tracking student achievement, but also for assessing - and building public support for - an individual school or program.
To encourage its most challenged schools to become a high-performing "School of Promise", the Ohio state superintendent’s office sets out academic benchmarks that exceed most state and federal guidelines. To qualify for the program, 75 percent or more of a school’s total student body must be proficient in reading or math, including 75 percent of students in each of the following educationally at-risk groups: economically disadvantaged students and minority students. In addition to demonstrating two years of strong academic achievement, Schools of Promise must also graduate 73 percent or more of their students, a graduation rate that is significantly higher than the national average for other similarly-situated schools in disadvantaged communities across the country.
In addition to complying with state and federal testing requirements, the San Jose Unified School District used frequent benchmark testing to generate regular data reports that allow school administrators and teachers to track how their students are performing, identify those students in need of extra academic or social supports, and re-evaluate the need for both immediate and long-term teaching adjustments.
Teach for America (TFA), a national teacher recruitment and training organization, has effectively used the findings of an independent evaluation to identify its strengths as well as areas for program improvement. To increase the pool of talented teachers for children in the nation’s low-income and minority communities, TFA recruits college seniors with strong academic records and leadership capabilities but without conventional teaching credentials.
In response to criticism that its new recruits were not being adequately prepared to teach students at-risk, TFA agreed to participate in an independent, randomized evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., a private research firm, to assess the impact of TFA teachers on student academic performance. The study found that TFA teachers had a more positive influence on math achievement than their non-TFA peers, and found TFA-trained and non-TFA teachers produced the same gains in reading. As a result of the study, TFA was able to directly refute the notion that its teachers were not adequately prepared to take on classroom challenges. In addition, TFA used the results of the evaluation to improve the literacy training program for its new teachers.
In the complex debate on how to design and enforce appropriate accountability measures for academic achievement, there is universal agreement on one fundamental principle: schools must be held responsible for the educational outcomes of their students. At a basic level, accountability requires schools to gather sufficient information to identify, measure, and eliminate barriers to academic achievement, especially for those children in poor and predominantly minority communities. In addition, schools must have clear mechanisms in place to share this data with the community and the media to ensure that they are adequately serving the needs of all children. Finally, policymakers and education leaders must be careful to create accountability measures that ensure compliance without causing further harm to the very students they are designed to support.
In addition to holding schools, school administrators and teachers accountable for education gaps, it is important to publicly recognize schools for their students’ academic success and create new forums in which to share their most promising practices with other communities. The Ohio Schools of Promise Program was started to recognize the schools in economically disadvantaged communities that are succeeding despite the odds. While the main goal of the program was to encourage these high-performing schools to continue their successful efforts on behalf of the state’s neediest students, it has a secondary benefit as well: the identification of promising practices that can be shared with other traditionally underserved school districts at the state and national level.
In too many poor and minority school districts, the students who need the most individual attention and academic help are often assigned to the most inexperienced and lowest-performing teachers. Through a combination of financial incentives, training, and professional development opportunities, schools, districts, and states must find new ways to encourage their most gifted and experienced teachers to help the students who will benefit most from their skills.
To help raise teaching standards across the board, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has created a voluntary national system to certify teachers who meet high and rigorous standards for what "accomplished teachers should know and be able to do." Several of NBPTS’s initiatives are particularly focused on increasing the number of minority teachers who have the opportunity to complete the program. In addition to its Direct Recruitment Efforts to Attract Minorities (DREAM) Team Initiative and its Targeted High Needs Initiative (THNI), a project that targets 20 urban and rural sites for increased participation in the NBPTS certification process, NBPTS has also supported efforts in several states to create financial incentives for teachers who commit to teach in some of the neediest school districts.
Teach for America (TFA) is a national teacher recruitment organization whose mission is to recruit and train highly motivated new teachers to help close the achievement gap afflicting low-income and minority students in urban and rural schools. The TFA process starts with intensive recruitment efforts at the nation’s top colleges and universities that focus particular attention on attracting math and science majors and people of color. TFA then provides the recruits with intensive training and places the new teachers in high-need urban and rural districts across the country. For the 2004-05 school year, TFA placed more than 3,500 teachers in 22 districts.
Over the past two decades, researchers have learned more than ever before about the importance of quality child care and early education opportunities to ensure that all children start school ready to learn and succeed academically. Despite the success of Early Head Start, Head Start and other promising early learning models, these programs are currently not available to all eligible children, especially to those in lower-income and minority communities. As a result, many children start school at a fundamental disadvantage to their more privileged peers.
Increasingly, however, schools are establishing closer partnerships with pre-k programs in their community to make sure their future students are getting the foundation they need.
Similarly, high school students need targeted supports and supplemental programs that not only prepare them for college, but maximize their opportunities to attend and graduate from college. Effective education policies, especially those that focus specifically on elementary or secondary school reforms, can only succeed if all students have quality early education opportunities and the transitional supports they need to make college a reality.
Recognizing that the achievement gap for many low-income and minority students begins even before they reach elementary school, the New Jersey Supreme Court in the Abbott decision specifically required universal, high-quality preschool education for every three- and four-year-old child in New Jersey. In particular, the court required the use of an age-appropriate pre-school curriculum that was carefully linked to existing K-12 standards and a maximum class size of 15. District-supervised programs were also required to meet the needs of local communities and rely on local community providers who are "capable and willing" to meet these high standards.
The George I. Sanchez Charter School in Texas also recognizes the fundamental need for quality early education by offering its teen parents free child care and pre-k education services for children between the ages of 6 months and four years. In addition to eliminating one of the main barriers that keep young parents from finishing high school, the school’s inclusion of early learning supports represents a targeted effort to build a more solid educational foundation for its next generation of students.
In the San Jose Unified School District, for example, all of the high schools have implemented a broad range of student supports to help maximize student learning. To fill in specific gaps in its existing services, SJUSD offers Saturday Academies, summer "bridge" programs and educational partnerships with local community colleges to supplement learning. "The reality is that a college preparatory curriculum dramatically increases the number of students who are ready to go to college," says former SJUSD superintendent Linda Murray. "The challenge now is to make college a reality for everyone who is ready."
In partnership with the Gates Foundation and the National Council of La Raza, the George I. Sanchez charter school offers an innovative Early College Program (ECP). Designed to bridge the gap between high school and college and enhance minority student opportunities, ECP allows participating students to leave with a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree or two years of college credit towards a bachelor’s degree. With the support of the Houston Tech Center and the Latino Technology Network, students at the San Antonio campus can take advantage of Houston’s state-of-the-art Odyssey Lab by using videoconferencing technology that also allows faculty to coordinate tutoring and other supplemental services that help improve students’ college chances, especially in the areas of math and science.
To succeed academically, all children should have access to quality supplemental supports, including challenging after-school and summer programs, tutoring, and mentoring opportunities. Supplemental academic programs and after-school opportunities are a proven way to reach at-risk youth by improving both self-confidence and academic achievement, particularly in poor and minority communities in which students may need extra supports to overcome years of inadequate funding and resources.
Higher Achievement is a promising example of an intensive, supplemental academic program designed to prepare low-income and minority middle school students to go to competitive high schools and on to college. Unlike after-school programs that provide one or two specific activities to engage students, Higher Achievement is a comprehensive program that partners with existing public schools in the after-school hours to help underserved youth achieve academic excellence. Higher Achievement participants receive an additional 650 hours of academic instruction each year, including classes between 3 and 8 p.m. 3 days per week during the school year, a 40-hour per week summer academy, and a follow-through component that provides scholars with training and support to attend a high quality high school that will prepare them for college.
In addition to the direct services, Higher Achievement is also exploring new ways to replicate its program in other communities. In partnership with Columbia and Princeton Universities, Higher Achievement is in the process of conducting a randomized evaluation to identify the strengths of its program and help expand other students’ opportunities to succeed academically.