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Strategy, Culture Keys to Closing Achievement Gaps in Diverse, Middle-Income Schools

Conversations around closing achievement gaps often focus on students in high-poverty, majority-minority schools, but a new report suggests higher-income schools and districts also can do more to support low-income, black, and Latino students.

Researchers from the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based nonprofit Public Impact analyzed more than 150 quantitative studies on the achievement gap from the last decade, looking at both the prevalence of income and racial achievement gaps in different types of schools and the practices of schools that successfully close achievement gaps.

"We've seen an increase in interest in diverse schools. More charter networks are trying to create 'diverse by design' schools, and more policy focus on creating diverse schools," said Bryan Hassel, co-president of Public Interest and an author of the report. "At the same time, how can we make sure that those schools are doing a great job for all students? It's not enough just to have diversity. You also need to attend to the factors that are going to determine how well students do."

The report finds more than half of the 24 million black and Latino students and more than a third of low-income students in the United States attend middle-income schools. But while poor or minority students in wealthier schools tend to outperform students in schools with more concentrated poverty, they continue to lag behind their white or wealthier peers at middle-class schools, as data from the 2016 National Assessment of Educational Progress show: 

NAEP 8th Grade Math by income.JPG

"There's a lot of complacency in some districts, because their overall scores are high and it's easy to think, "We're a great school district,'—even though large numbers of kids within the district are not doing well," Hassel said.

Multiple Supports Needed

The report, funded by the nonprofit Oak Foundation, suggests that closing income and racial achievement gaps in middle-class districts requires district leaders to create a "culture of equity," supporting students' basic physical and social-emotional needs while ensuring that district policies provide all students with access to rigorous coursework.

"School districts often don't pursue this whole package," Hassel said. "They focus on one thing—'Oh, if we get diversity training would close the achievement gap.' 'If we focused on making sure kids have breakfast and lunch, that will make the difference.' In fact, it's the whole package of outstanding learning, safe and secure learners and the culture of equity."

Among the report's recommendations:

  • Incorporate highly effective teachers into teacher-teams to increase the number of students they teach directly or through co-teaching.
  • Ensure students see at least one teacher of their race and gender in elementary, middle, and high school grades.
  • Screening all students for special educational and enrichment programs, to avoid those programs becoming dominated by parent or teacher referrals. "Too many low-income students of color are not prepared for the advanced opportunities that exist," Hassel said. "That's one problem. But then there's a second huge problem, which is even those that are ready for advanced [coursework] are disproportionately cut out on subjective rather than objective criteria. It's pretty striking."

The report also noted that districts may be too quick to train staff in "diversity" or "cultural sensitivity" without strong evidence of the programs' benefit. "There's been a big investment in diversity training amongst district staff, but not a lot of good research about what works," Hassel said. "It's kind of intuitive that it could be important, but I think that's an area where we need to learn more about what's effective."

By contrast, the report argued there is stronger evidence supporting "trauma-informed care"—training teachers and staff to understand and respond to the behavior and academic challenges faced by students who have undergoe trauma. Separate studies have found students in poverty are at higher risk of trauma.


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