Thursday, October 6, 2011

HOW I WOULD CLOSE: The achievement gap in Columbia. A parent/reader offers ideas

By John Shewmaker, Special to the Columbia Heart Beat

I am a plain Missouri lawyer, retired to Columbia after 32 years practicing law in St. Louis.  I have long been concerned about the failure to close the achievement gap between children of color or of poverty, and children more favorably situated.  
 
While I agree that prevalence of single-parent households, or gunfights, or slumlords, or alcoholism and drug abuse have a perfectly awful effect on children (as well as adults), the failure of the school board and yearly candidates for the school board to competently to address the academic achievement gap is not caused by these environmental conditions.
 
The bureaucratic enforcement of "standards" has practically nothing to do with closing the "achievement gap," either.   I would argue, in fact, the contrary probably results, that the bureaucratic tendency to do business "as usual" keeps the gap from ever being closed.
 
Finally, if a teacher doesn't know what is going on with the learning of a child, he/she is in no position to fix that learning.  If the news comes too late, days or weeks after initial instruction, it becomes difficult to go back and fix what should have been learned earlier.  I just discovered this in the case of my own son, a Rockbridge H.S. Senior, taking Algebra Two, who apparently never had been instructed how to add or subtract oddball fractions by creating a common denominator.
 
It's been years and years since he should have known how to do this.
 
Willful Ignorance?
 
The failure to competently to address the academic achievement gap represents a failure to search out what has worked elsewhere, which is to say, a kind of willful ignorance
 
Perhaps this is attributable to laziness, lack of real concern for the children affected, or an assumption that the causes of school failure are beyond the control of the schools.  
 
In any event, the lack of focused effort on the part of Columbia Public Schools (CPS) is certainly real, particularly since there are good counter-examples where such achievement gaps have been closed.   Columbia's achievement gap is not unique.   The larger questions are:  Where are the successful schools where such gaps have been closed, and what do these schools do that worked? 
 
Consider the K-8 Charter Day School, in Leland, North Carolina.   It was built in an area of rural poverty, and serves six counties in North Carolina with largely free and reduced-price lunch students.   Their accomplishments demonstrate that the achievement gap is an artifact of poor schooling, not because of a poor external environment.  Taken as a whole, they are among the most successful students in the state.
 
A closer example is in Kansas City, Missouri -- the Della Lamb Charter School.  
 
Is there any chance that the present officialdom at CPS will pay a visit to a nearby example of what works?  I don't think so. 
 
ABC -- An Achievement-Based Curriculum
 
For its own part, CPS should implement the curricula known as Direct Instruction.   Use Language for Learning  (L4L) in kindergarten with Reading Mastery I and II.   For the faster kids, use Horizons.   
 
These curricula, published by the SRA Division of McGraw-Hill and authored by Siegfried Engelmann aren't cheap to purchase and the method of instruction is tightly scripted.  
 
But all are so structured as to rapidly build repertoire that encourages the generalization of what is learned to novel situations. 
 
Not Optimistic 
 
I am not optimistic about CPS doing anything about the achievement gap anytime soon. 
 
For instance, I have written the CPS Asst. Superintendent for Elementary Education about all this and received no reply.  He is supposed to be an innovative chap, but he doesn't answer his email. 

Our school board could put the heat on CPS management.   But I doubt that they will.  I suppose the reasons are (1) the Board has no clear idea of its responsibilities and powers and (2) its members, like a lot of folks, believe the schools aren't able to address achievement gap causes, and that what goes on in the schools simply won't help.
 
Despite my immediate pessimism, I remain optimistic that there is much CPS could do to close the achievement gap in the long term.  But at some point, someone with the power to make change has to move forward. 

3 comments:

  1. Our school board could put the heat on CPS management. But I doubt that they will. I suppose the reasons are (1) the Board has no clear idea of its responsibilities and powers and (2) its members, like a lot of folks, believe the schools aren't able to address achievement gap causes, and that what goes on in the schools simply won't help.

    No—unlike the author—CPS school board members understand they don't have the appropriate knowledge base to recommend specific curricular programs. School boards learn almost immediately that micro-managing causes more problems than it ever solves.

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  2. Spoken like a true bureaucrat!

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  3. The Dunning–Kruger effect. Google it.

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