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Breaking the Orthodoxy About the Achievement Gap


In a timely essay on Valerie Strauss' WaPo Answer Sheet blog, Bellevue (WA) teacher Charles Duerr wonders what good it will do to include student achievement in his evaluation:

By year's end I will have entered 8,892 data points into my district's data collection systems—Gradebook and Reading 3D. This data is from homework, assessments, and report cards.

Which of these 8,892 data points are the important ones? I mean, which of these data points will count towards my evaluation? And what problem are you trying to address by including student assessments into teacher evaluations?

He points out some of the struggles his five lowest students are facing, and catalogs the supports and interventions they are receiving. Nevertheless, he concludes:

But I am not good enough to overcome the barriers some of my students face. I don't know who is.

I think the correct answer is "Superman," but we keep getting voicemail when we try to reach him, and at any rate, I think Superman would have a think-tank job by now if he were so great.

Days earlier, Valerie noted that

In the current climate, anybody who raises the issue of how poverty affects students runs the risk of being labeled as:

• a defender of the status quo

• someone who uses poverty as an excuse for bad teachers who are protected by bad teachers unions

• someone who believes that certain kids cannot learn as well as other kids.

None of those are true.

As Ms. Strauss predicts, I have little doubt that Mr. Duerr will be roundly criticized for deigning to suggest that family factors play a role in student achievement. Never mind that we have known this empirically for decades.

It has long been heretical in this profession to suggest that we cannot, in fact, close the achievement gaps in our classrooms. I want to believe—as do all public educators—that we hold in our hands the keys to closing the achievement gap, yet the evidence so far doesn't support that belief.

Bellevue is virtually in my backyard, and has a reputation locally as one of the most tightly centralized and data-driven districts anywhere. My principal preparation program had a very close relationship with the district, and I know many people who work there; if any district in the country has made a solid effort to create a system of truly aligned, data-driven instruction, it is Bellevue.

While it has many families in poverty, Bellevue is a school district with astounding financial resources—just a few years ago, there was serious discussion of buying a computer for every family that did not have one at home, to close the digital divide. If there is one place on earth where instruction can close the achievement gap, it's Bellevue.

And yet, the gaps remain:
Bellevue 3rd grade reading scores

Does this mean we give up? No. We must continue to work to eliminate the disparities in educational outcomes for our nation's students. We must make sure our instruction is as good as it can possibly be.

But I don't think we can continue to have a serious discussion about improving results for students without considering seriously Mr. Duerr's words. Squeezing teachers harder and holding them ever-more accountable is not going to get us there. Fighting poverty must move to the center of our agenda.

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