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ASCD 2012: Addressing Opportunity Gaps

Live from the ASCD Annual Conference in Philadelphia

It was pretty darn sunny in Philadelphia yesterday—record-breaking temperatures even for this time of year. It's cloudier now but I'll be inside for much of the next two days, along with 8,000 or so educators attending the annual ASCD conference.

The sessions here really run the gamut—from Common Core to bullying to ed-tech to leadership. And with about 50 going on at any one time, it's a veritable head spin for the indecisive.

This morning, I was decisively headed to a session on teacher evaluation with the much-revered Robert Marzano, when a woman ahead of me on the escalator began chanting, "Pedro, Pedro, Pedro..." The unintended hard sell worked (maybe too much coffee had made me itchy?)—I abruptly changed directions and followed her to Pedro Noguera and Wade Boykin's presentation, "Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap."

Not a bad move, as Noguera revved up the sleepy morning crowd with his characteristic enthusiasm and one-liners. He began with poignant questions about school conditions to get people thinking about the factors that contribute to achievement gaps. "Are we using discipline to change behavior or are we using discipline to push out the neediest students? ... How many of you are in a district that assigns its weakest teachers to teach your neediest students?"

He zeroed in on special education programs as a risky area for perpetuating gaps (see our previous Sourcebook piece on the disproportionality of minorities in special edfor more on this). "If you're in a school where special ed is a 'place' to put children, you know you have a problem." It's a misconception special education teachers are often battling—that special education is a location or diagnosis, when in reality it's a set of services. "Are we using special education or ESL as a place to put children we don't know how to serve or don't want to serve?" he asked.

Noguera pointed to Brockton High School in Massachusetts as an example of a high-performing, high-poverty school that is creating opportunities for underserved students. At Brockton, "they're focused on the conditions for learning, what they control in school, and on literacy." In general, high-performing, high-poverty schools are "focused on different things [than other schools]," he said. For instance, "they're not focused on value-added for teachers, they're focused on peer support."

Boykin spoke about more specific teaching and learning strategies that can help improve achievement, especially for African American and Latino students. If there's one place for schools to start, he said, it's with teacher-student relationship quality (TSRQ). Teachers need to "interact with students in ways that are caring but also demanding." They also need to focus on students' assets, seeing the cultural diversity students bring into the classroom as a plus, and something to build on, rather than a barrier. In addition, teachers should work to improve relationships between students. Too often, "kids are afraid to make mistakes, they're afraid other kids will tease them." Creating a safe space for learning is key to closing gaps, he said.

Noguera summed it up: "There will always be some children who do not do as well as others," he said. "But what we want is for kids' race, culture, and social status not to be a predictor of how a student will do."

In all, the session proved inspiring—a feat for an 8:00am billing—and there was a discernible hum among educators on the way out the door.

Follow Teaching Now as well as our Twitter account @EdWeekTeacher all weekend.

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