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The Podium

How to fix the achievement gaps

A bumper sticker slogan reads, “If you want peace, work for justice.” The educational corollary goes something like this: “If you want to close achievement gaps, eliminate opportunity gaps.”

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently prodded the city of Manchester, N.H., to do just this. It announced a settlement with the Manchester School District to reduce inequitable access to college preparatory courses for Black and Latino students, including students identified as English Language Learners. Sound familiar? It should. Two years ago it was Boston Public Schools that was pushed to forge a similar agreement, this time involving the Department of Justice as well. In this case, BPS was forced to remedy violations to the Equal Education Opportunities Act (1974) and Civil Rights Act (1964) regarding properly preparing educators to serve ELL students.


The cynic might yawn, seeing these as just more evidence that sluggish school systems need to be prodded into tackling the seemingly intractable achievement gaps dividing white and affluent students from students of color, students living in poverty, and students whose mother tongues aren’t English. Just wait, he’ll caution. We’ll see abundant hand-wringing, little decisive action, and no lasting change.

But perhaps a more optimistic view is warranted. Achievement gaps are evidence of outputs: what learning has happened. But inputs drive outputs.

Ensuring that all students are able to access high-level learning is focusing on such inputs. Some of the barriers to such access that investigators found in Manchester include:

- Black and Latino freshmen are frequently assigned to low academic tracks based solely on performance testing

- Students are seldom provided opportunities to advance from lower to higher tracks

- Poor communication and outreach to students and parents about access to and benefits of attending advanced placement courses

In Boston Public Schools, investigators found that ELL students lacked access to the same quality teachers as their native English-speaking counterparts.


In both cases, the agreements focused on eliminating these opportunity gaps. In Boston, practical steps are being taken to do this. For instance, all teachers and administrators are required to attain additional training. Manchester schools will start by analyzing enrollment data to determine the root causes for the disproportionally low numbers of Black and Latino students in accelerated classes. Such an equity audit can be an important precursor to strategic action.

So who is right? The cynic, who sees the same old same old? The optimist, who sees the tide turning? As stakeholders — including students and parents, teachers and administrators, and indeed all local residents — we each play a role determining what plays out in our school communities.

What can you do to ensure your school community reduces opportunity gaps? Here are three steps:

1) Embrace our pluralism.

The recent publication from the Pew Research Center entitled “The Next America” describes the rainbow tapestry of our society. Culturally and linguistically diverse students are not outliers, but the new mainstream. School communities across contexts – rural to suburban to urban – need stakeholders to affirmatively welcome all. This was poignantly captured in the Coke commercial during the Super Bowl, serenading a linguistically diverse America the Beautiful.

2) Don’t wait for the hammer.

Manchester and Boston school districts were forced to respond to the federal government. As teachers, parents, and residents, we can proactively ensure that practical steps are being taken to recognize and eliminate opportunity gaps in our school communities. An equity audit is a practical first step.


3) See the forest, not just the trees.

One problem with enforcement actions catalyzing change is that they tend to be narrowly focused. So Manchester schools look at access to advanced classes, and Boston schools focus on teacher preparation. But instead of taking a piecemeal approach, stakeholders should push for holistic improvement. Seeing the forest means looking at school reform comprehensively. For instance, effective schooling for culturally and linguistically diverse students involves attending to three domains: student engagement, language acquisition, and academic achievement. Each of these is an essential component to a productive teaching and learning environment for these students.

The heavy lifting has to come at the local level. We can build educational equity in our school communities by turning attention away from bemoaning achievement gaps to focusing on eliminating opportunity gaps.

Martin Scanlan and Rebecca Lowenhaupt are professors at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.