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School Choice

The Tests Are New, But the Story’s the Same: What Will It Take to Close the Opportunity Gap?

Last week, California released the first set of results from the new standardized tests that are linked to the Common Core State Standards. The new tests are considerably more challenging than the multiple choice exams they replaced and educators throughout the state took pains to adjust expectations in advance of the reported scores. There’s good reason not to expect students to come roaring out of the gates, but there is one stark reality that even lowered expectations cannot erase: the students who performed well on the new tests are the same students who were successful on the old ones and vice versa. Less than a third of Latino students and barely more than a quarter of African-American students scored at or above grade level in English language arts. On the same tests, 72 percent of Asian and 51 percent of white students met the standards.

More of Less

Sadly, the achievement gap persists in California, as it does throughout the country. If we are serious about changing this story, it is time to stop treating the achievement gap as a failure on the part of children and recognize that it is a function of inequity. The real story, as the Los Angeles Times suggests, is that, although scores were lower in general at all schools, the highest scoring schools, those that typically serve students from more affluent families or those with fewer educational challenges, declined less. Put another way, the disparity in achievement levels is more aptly termed an “opportunity gap” because it stems from a lack of resources for families in low-income, immigrant and marginalized communities. Children who live in these neighborhoods attend schools where they are less likely to get a good education. They tend to have less qualified and experienced teachers, lower expectations for students and more safety issues.

An Even Playing Field

But the opportunity gap begins before school. Researchers demonstrated over a decade ago that children in higher-income families hear 30 million more words by the time they enter kindergarten than their low-income peers. Similarly, professional parents are far more likely to read, sing and engage with their babies and toddlers. They are also far more likely to send their children to preschool. We know from the research that these behaviors translate into significantly higher levels of school readiness for their children. So can we even the playing field and finally close the opportunity gap? It turns out that, after sifting through the multitude of attempted fixes to the national education system over the past 50 years, there are a few evidence-based practices that have demonstrated payoffs by providing more equitable access to opportunities.
  1. Early education Parents who understand their role as their child’s first teacher have a profound impact on the long-term success of their children. They create opportunities to build early cognitive and social skills that prepare them for school.Children who attend quality day care and early-education programs demonstrate higher levels of school readiness and have higher rates of long-term academic success.
  2. School integration Children of color from underserved communities who attend public schools in more affluent neighborhoods are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. Thanks to integration programs, they have access to higher quality teaching, higher expectations and better resources.
  3. Good teacher preparation and professional development In contrast to the United States, countries with the highest performing students select teaching candidates from the top of their classes, subsidize high-quality training and ongoing support and treat teachers with respect that is reflected in their compensation.
  4. School choice When given the chance, parents seek out the highest performing schools for their children—whether charter, magnet or other alternative programs. Children who complete these highly-rated programs are much more likely to attend college.
Unfortunately, even when the results are clear, our leaders have not demonstrated the political will to support policies that provide poor children of color with opportunities to succeed such as parent engagement and home visiting programs, universal preschool, fairer housing policies and charter school laws that require high standards for approval and strict accountability. Public school parents in needy communities must make their voices heard as voters and advocates to demand these policy changes. Only then will the doors begin to open to opportunities that will propel their children toward academic success and out of poverty.  
Katie Braude is the founder of Katie Braude Consulting, providing support to organizations and efforts seeking to achieve equity in public education, and a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. 
Katie Braude
Katie Braude is executive director of Speak UP and founder of  Katie Braude Consulting, providing support to organizations and efforts seeking to achieve equity in public education. She is also a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, and she served as a senior consultant to Abriendo ...

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