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Steve Cohen: From Closing the Achievement Gap to Closing the Opportunity Gap

Guest post by Steve Cohen.

On Monday, when teachers headed back to classrooms, 15,000 other educators descended on San Francisco's upscale Union Square hotels for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting.

Feeling a tad overwhelmed by 2,400 sessions, I braved my way to the Westin St. Francis where an audience of about 250 gathered for a session based on the just-released book Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance in School It proved to be a wise choice. Judging from the audience's response to the session, it seemed to reasonably represent a direction that most other AERA meeting goers would like to follow to improve American education.

Here's the SparkNotes version: The kids who come to school with less get less from school. Closing the achievement gap with high-stakes, test-centric teaching combined with low resources, few opportunities and a lack of support has failed. The best way out is to close the mushrooming opportunity gap, create more equitable opportunities and gauge how well states and districts are doing to create those opportunities. Achievement follows from opportunities to learn.

The book's editors, Kevin Welner and Prudence Carter, plus five of the 17 Opportunity Gap chapter authors -- Christopher Tienken, Harvey Kantor, Linda Darling-Hammond, Bob Lowe and Patricia Gandara -- were on hand with mounds of evidence on how we need to reboot: how to go from the proverbial Education 1.0 with a focus on the achievement gap to Education 2.0 with a focus on closing the opportunity gap. And mounds more evidence fill the book: Both session "critics," David Berliner and Meredith Phillips, pointed out, many of the chapters could well serve as the basis for college courses.

I came away more hopeful despite a swarm of depressing evidence on how we derailed our kids. The focus of my optimism centered on the presentation by Darling-Hammond, who authored the "Closing the Opportunity Gap" chapter "Inequality and School Resources: What it Will Take to Close the Opportunity Gap?" Her historical perspective was less "The Lost Future," more "Back to the Future." More possible Renaissance than difficult Reboot.

The Stanford professor made a compelling case that closing the opportunity gap -- paying attention to rising poverty rates and lack of resources for children outside of school -- began with the Great Society and the War on Poverty in the mid-'60s. One result was a sharp decline in the Achievement Gap between Black and White students between 1971 and 1988, when the achievement gap was at its smallest point and when the gap between those two groups closed by two thirds, according to Darling-Hammond.

"Had we stayed on the track with the policies that produced that [progress], then we would have had no racial achievement gap by the year 2000," said Darling-Hammond. "But we took a sharp U Turn in policy" (when federal funding for education decreased from 12 percent to 6 percent during the 1980s and most of those programs that were eliminated were focused on investing in reducing inequalities in schools).

Instead, the U.S. has been hyper focused on the achievement gap since the early 1980s. As a primary consequence of that switched focus (what Berliner called "The Great American Switcheroo: How we got conned from going from inputs to outputs in what we worry about in our educational system"), the attainment levels of U.S. students graduating from high school has remained largely static more than 50 years since the Great Society and the War on Poverty, and exactly 30 years since "A Nation at Risk" was released.

Which brings me to my other reason for hope: Investing in reducing the factors leading to school inequality pays major dividends. Sure, the list of fixes is long and expensive: from high-quality early childhood education; to addressing the needs of language minorities, which UCLA professor Gandara spoke about; to limiting standardization and standardized testing, which professor Tienken addressed.

But as economists Clive Belfield and Hank Levin point out in their chapter in Closing the Opportunity Gap, a conservative estimate of the economic benefit of closing the opportunity gap by just one-third would result in $50 billion in annual fiscal savings and $200 billion in savings from a societal perspective (for example, by lowering rates of crime and incarceration). By point of comparison, they note, total annual taxpayer spending on K-12 education, including national, state and local expenditures, is approximately $570 billion.

More optimism: Darling-Hammond discussed how other nations that HAVE focused on investing in children's welfare and social supports for families and on an equitable schooling system have shown great results. Countries such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore have surged ahead, as evidenced by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and other international rankings, in part by investing heavily to ensure that all children are taught by well-trained and supported teachers.

It can't happen here, you say. Maybe. But it can happen some places. While huge funding disparities exist between states and within districts, states that have invested in preschool and other supports have seen reductions in the achievement gap.

"Almost every state has a state bird, a state flag and a state school finance lawsuit," joked Darling-Hammond. But then she brought up New Jersey: After 30 years of litigation and nine court decisions to close the funding gaps between well-funded and less-funded districts, the Garden State made needed investments. They became one of the top scoring states in the nation on NAEP and cut their achievement gap in half -- this in a state with 46 percent students of color and more than a third of the kids living in poverty.

So despite poisonous political winds, maybe it is possible to close the achievement gap and improve the life chances of children and the welfare of our society with targeted investments.

What do you think? Can we refocus on closing the opportunity gap? What will it take?

Steve Cohen is a consultant focused on strategic communications and content development for a range of public interest education organizations.

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