Jul 11, 2011

Closing Student Achievement Gaps [Or, I Don't Know What I'm Talking About]

Tom Greene is an honors graduate from Appalachian State University and North Carolina Teaching Fellow. Tom taught government and economics at Chapel Hill High School for the last four years and was named ‘Best New Teacher of the Year’ after his first year. He earned a full scholarship to study in Turkey with other American educators and worked to close the achievement gap with his work in the classroom and on the CHHS Equity Team. Recently, Tom was named one of the most effective educators for minority students at CHHS and participated in research on closing the achievement gap. This fall, he will attend the University of Connecticut School of Law in hopes to use his law degree to advance education reform in the United States.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a report on an ongoing American crisis that undermines our constitutional foundations of equality and justice. The report, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, reveals that the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students isn't budging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "achievement gaps occur when one group of students outperforms another group and the difference in average scores for the two groups is statistically significant."

A McKinsey & Company report "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Americas Schools" identifies four critical achievement gaps in the United States: between American students and those in other countries; between low-income students and their wealthier peers; between students from different school districts: and between students of different racial identities.

The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students is especially alarming due to the NAEP report citing 2010 US Census data that finds: "Hispanics are the second largest racial/ethnic group in the United States, comprising 16 percent of the nation’s population." Our nation's schools must feel a sense of urgency, when we find a large sector of the population's children underperforming and lagging behind academically, limiting economic production, and ensuring greater future reliance on government assistance.

Based on the federal NAEP report, the American dream is being denied to many of our students. The report shows a 21 and 29-point difference between white and Hispanic students in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 respectively, with a 25 and 24-point difference between white and Hispanic students in reading found in grades 4 and 8.

If we disaggregate the data into income levels, we still find an alarming gap of 11 and 13 points in reading between white and Hispanic students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (students eligible for free and reduced lunch based on the family's income) in grades 4 and 8. What's more Hispanic students who do not qualify for the National School Lunch Program perform just one point better than white students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Further, if we compare Hispanic students who are not English Language Learners and English speaking white students, we still find an achievement gap of 15 points in both grades 4 and 8.

Race should not determine student achievement. The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students is a civil rights violation. As a teacher, I witnessed the transformational power of high expectations for all students. I pushed them to achieve at the highest levels, accepting nothing less than success. One of my Hispanic students came to me performing at the lowest levels, yet I kept challenging and engaging her with academic rigor, not giving up on her eventual success. This student graduated this year and wrote me an encouraging note describing how holding her to high standards gave her the confidence necessary to excel in school.

I take pride in helping my students succeed and defy the national trends that relegate Hispanic students to low achievement levels and trajectories. Many of my Hispanic students faced cultural, social, and economic challenges, yet when academically challenged and supported these students have made remarkable gains. I know in my classroom, my Hispanic students performed well. I'm convinced that all kids can and want to learn, it is up to American educators to motivate and inspire minority students to achieve.

Our nation's teachers and school leaders must adopt a sense of urgency to close this gap and no longer normalize and accept the failure of our Hispanic students. The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students ensures that we lose billions of dollars in economic growth, while preventing countless students equitable opportunities in life.

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