Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Addressing the Achievement Gap: Opportunities for Young Men of Color

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

The Commission on Equity and Excellence had a Congressional mandate to provide advice to Secretary Duncan on the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities and to recommend ways in which federal policies can address such disparities. They just released a report titled “For Each and Every Child,” after a two year work period. The distinguished members of the panel, with diverse professional backgrounds and different political ideologies, focused on the inequality in our nation’s public school system as the primary driver behind two achievement gaps, the internal domestic gap and the international gap. Their conclusions and recommendations won’t surprise education professionals, but the report serves as a well-timed call to action for the struggles facing African American students, particularly males, during Black History Month. The opportunity gap also exists for a significant number of Hispanic and Native American students.

What we know is that non-school factors matter for all children, and some children require additional supports to compensate for significant social and emotional challenges that may follow them into the school learning environment. Schools face circumstances and realities that include: poverty, transience, cultural disconnects, disengaged students, and unaddressed health needs, and that’s just to name a few. Two-thirds of student achievement can be attributed to these non-school factors. On a recent National School Boards Association (NSBA) webinar “Systematic Approaches to Improving Outcomes for Young Men of Color” presenter S. Kwesi Rollins, Director of Leadership Programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) noted that we are at a crossroads of frustration when it comes to improving outcomes for minority students. Yet, closing the opportunity gap means closing the achievement gap, and so we must move forward with our efforts; it is an economic and moral imperative.

The Commission’s report provides a clear overview of where we struggle, and proposes a series of robust policy recommendations. We must: improve school finance and efficiency; provide teaching, leading and learning opportunities to recruit and retain talented educators and school leadership; ensure access to high-quality early childhood education; meet the needs of students in high-poverty communities; and address issues around governance and accountability to improve equity and excellence.  The strength and success of our education system will ultimately be judged based on our ability to address the systemic inequities that contribute to the persistent achievement gap. 

We know that high-poverty districts struggle to provide adequate resources and retain high-quality teachers. Students who grow up in poverty are more likely to start school with a smaller vocabulary and struggle in school early on; the achievement gap is persistent and only grows through middle school into high school. These students disengage and are more likely to drop out before graduation, making it more difficult for them to earn a living and contribute to social and economic vitality. We know what works, but the challenge rests in implementation, which varies from district to district and from state to state.

We need practiced and experienced teachers in every classroom, especially those with the highest need. In order to recruit and retain teachers, we must show real respect for the teaching profession, help fund those who want to teach, provide them with ample resources, targeted professional development, and yes, better pay. EdTPA offers a rigorous teacher training experience, designed to strengthen the profession through classroom feedback and mentoring, but we must invest in these programs to ensure they are affordable for districts and schools to implement and utilize as tools. We also need to diversify our teaching force to reflect our increasingly diverse student body and help relate to our growing minority student population.

Parents working multiple jobs or single parent families are less likely to have time to connect with their child’s school, yet we know that parental engagement is critical to student success. We need effective programs that encourage shared reading, and parental support in completing homework assignments, as well as emphasize partnerships and shared responsibility between parents and schools, and foster communication between parents and teachers. The Academic Parent-Teacher Team (APTT (C)) model from Creighton School District in Arizona is showing significant results when it comes to parent and family engagement. And, we must address the cradle to prison pipeline that affects many of our African American and minority youth; school disciplinary policies result in an astounding number of lost instructional days and only serve to sever relationships between disaffected youth and institutions of learning.

Community schools, that provide wrap around services help ensure students are healthy and prepared to learn. Certain states have zeroed in on their inequities in their funding of public schools, while others’ systems remain regressive. Other states are pushing for increased access to quality early childhood education. Advocates and policy-makers must collaborate with education professionals to push multiple solutions in a joint effort. There is no one silver bullet that will address the complexities of inequity. If we embrace the compounded challenges together, we can achieve a better outcome for all our children. Our fight for equity is a moral one, essential for the vitality of our democracy, and it must continue until each child has access to high-quality education.