At the school board candidates’ forum last week, candidates were given an insufficient amount of time to respond to our question on the achievement gap, so we have asked it as the first of five weekly questions, similar to what we did with the city council in the spring.
We asked the candidates to limit their answer to 250 words.
Question: Do you believe there is an achievement gap in DJUSD? If not, then how can we make sure to keep it that way? If you believe there is an achievement gap what are concrete steps to address it?
Bob Poppenga: The educational “achievement gap” refers to differences in academic performance between groups of students. It is most often used to refer to differences in academic performance (e.g., grades, standardized-test scores, dropout rates, or college-admission rates) between Latino and African American students and their Caucasian and Asian peer groups. The term is also applied to student academic performance differences based upon family income, gender, learning disabilities, and English language proficiency.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 focused the nation’s attention on trying to close the achievement gap through various targeted interventions. Despite intense efforts to close the gap, only modest progress has been made since 2001. However, there are a number of strategies that can help, although no single strategy is completely effective when used in isolation. Unfortunately, some useful strategies like creating smaller schools or year round school are unlikely to be implemented due to lack of resources or political opposition.
- Provide as many early learning opportunities for children at risk as possible.
- While early education is critical to getting off on the right academic foot, maintaining academic readiness over a long summer vacation can be challenging for low income children.
- We need do everything that we can to ensure quality teaching in every classroom. In my view, this means not only hiring good teachers but providing them with a quality professional development system and an effective peer mentoring program (especially for early career teachers) to help them develop and expand their teaching skills.
- More contact time with students, either through a longer day or longer school year, can help. California’s recent budget crisis resulted in school districts shortening the school year by several days.
- Lastly, as I wrote in a previous Vanguard commentary (August 2), there is emerging evidence that short, appropriately formulated psychological interventions at critical stages of a child’s education (transition to junior high school or high school for example) can help at risk children overcome their self-doubts and negative stereotypes about their abilities and lead to better long term academic performance.
(Editor’s note: we condensed the answer due to space limitations; we will publish his full account at a later date).
Chuck Rairdan: Yes. I believe there is a persistent achievement gap in DJUSD and for a variety of reasons. At a comprehensive level, I think the community should make a concerted effort to create a more inclusive environment in our schools. For example, not every student in Davis is college bound nor should they be. Each child has his or her own unique interests, talents, and learning style and we need to honor and respect those differences. In addition to developing solid foundational literacies and meeting or exceeding state standards, students who are drawn to the arts or trades should have ample options available to pursue the interests that inspire them personally. Taking steps to keep all our youth productively engaged and broadening the sense of belonging in our schools will motivate more students to stay actively involved in their education.
Another example is EL, or English Learner, students. Finding the ways to keep them engaged enough to gain English proficiency is a critical step toward subject matter mastery. A better understanding of the social barriers that many EL student experience will help open the doors to greater interaction with their English speaking classmates. There is a substantial migrant farm worker population within DJUSD and the district has recently initiated an outreach program that encourages and supports these children to strive academically. This program also includes home visits for students throughout the Davis community who are struggling in school. The recently developed Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP, identifies these and other concrete steps that are beginning to seriously address the achievement gap. With continued progress, other measures can be identified that build upon what has proved to be successful.
Barbara Archer: Of course there is an achievement gap in Davis. About one quarter of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. At some individual school sites, this number is much higher.
In a recent Sacramento Bee article on teacher tenure, writer Steve O’Donoghue writes that the “number 1 reason low-income students, especially students of color, achieve less than their white peers is family income.”
O’Donoghue further notes that “a number of studies have found that the main determinant of student success in school is family income.”
We must do all we can as a district to support students who are struggling in school whatever the reason. At a district candidate forum on Wednesday night, we asked the district’s climate coordinator about climate trends in the district. She said she had noticed an increase in the number of homeless students. The district has support structures in place for these students, and we should review what is being done to see if we have the means to strengthen those supports.
We must make sure we have equal access to school and program information, which may mean an increase in translation and interpretation services. We have over 40 languages represented in our district.
The district has seen a surge in the need for crisis counseling, and we need more resources in that area.
Special education students may fall into the achievement gap. I would like to get more information about the district IEP program and communications about IEP issues and accommodations are handled.
We have many good people in the district doing their best with the resources they have, and it will be up to the board to prioritize budget for these resources.
Mike Nolan: The “Achievement Gap” is a discrepancy in scores on standardized tests, in particular math and English language arts, between certain groups of students. Yes it does exist. But it is important to understand that these gaps exist throughout the United States, not just Davis. Thus, Black and Hispanic students score less well, than white (European decent) students, who in turn score less well than American students with Asian (i.e. from Turkey to Korea) ancestry.
To the extent this indicates a gap in education and college admissions, or does it signify something else? In medical terms, is it the sickness or only a symptom? Turn the question on its head: If the gap ended this year, what would THAT signify? Would it mean the end to discrimination, or prejudice? Would minority students no longer suffer disproportionate school punishment? Or would only those who market and those who trust in the infallibility of standardized testing breathe a sigh of relief? I think standardized testing is a “means” to measure certain student achievement, it is not an “end” in and of itself.
My view is to focus on counseling and preparation for the impacted population. But I see a danger in proposals to “drill” those students for these tests at the expense of non-tested curriculum: music, the arts, history, government and vocational education. Why should belonging to a population with a lower score on a test deprive you of the full panoply of public education? Our School District’s policy is to look at the whole student, as one with unique talents, which our schools must allow to be developed.
Jose Granda: It is a disappointment, for those who believe the Davis Schools are the best, to face reality. They are not performing to their best. According to the report published by the Sacramento Bee Sunday, February 5, 2012, Davis schools do not even place within the first 15 in the area from API (Academic Performance Index) scores. So there is an achievement gap. What to do?
What I can offer is my experience of 32 years of teaching. If we as a district are going to address this issue, there has to be a plan with measurable controls to close the achievement gap, an allocation of resources for our teachers to do the best they can be, allocation of facilities for tutoring, and a general policy to provide tutoring assistance to any child that needs help. I have proposed the creation of a tutoring center K-12 on the Grande Property to use it to benefit the education of Davis children, including preparation for the SAT and ACT. That land belongs to the kids and their parents, the taxpayers. I oppose giving it for pennies to some developer to make money and build houses instead of classrooms. A tutoring center would be unique in the area and will show a deliberate effort to raise the quality and achievement of Davis students.
Madhavi Sunder: Preschool and Transitional kindergarten play a vital role in closing the achievement and helping to ensure that struggling students are not already behind when they start kindergarten because other children had access to high quality preschool and they did not. I believe that Davis can lead the way in a new wave of thinking about and implementing public preschool, and we have leaders in the field like Amy Duffy and Ross and Janet Thompson within our town with whom we can partner.
Parents and the schools must work together as a village to support each child’s growth. At Montgomery Elementary, parents are partnering with the UC Davis linguistics department to offer free English and Spanish language classes for parents in the mornings. Such programs bring parents, including Spanish speaking families, onto campus and into the school community. The Family Resource Center at Montgomery also brings non-Native speaking parents to campus. The new two-way bilingual immersion program at Montgomery allows non-English speaking parents to volunteer and help in the classroom, increasing their connectedness and feeling of being able to contribute to their own child’s and other children’s education.
Another key area is early literacy. We need to ensure that all children are strong readers by the time they finish third grade; from thereon, they will be reading to learn, not learning to read. This year the district is supporting reading aides in all third grade classes throughout the district to ensure that all of our third graders are reading at grade level. Two-way bilingual immersion, which allows Spanish speakers to learn to read in their first language, gives confidence to children and helps instill a love of reading.
Extended learning opportunities, such as the Bridge after-school homework program at Montgomery, the homework club at Holmes Jr. High, and summer school programs are other key means for keeping kids learning.
Offering a diversity of programs is also key to keeping all students, including struggling students, engaged. A well-balanced school and a well-balance curriculum are the key to all children succeeding.
(Editor’s note: we condensed the answer due to space limitations and will publish her full account at a later date).
Editor’s note: At press time, we did not receive a response from Tom Adams or Alan Fernandes. If we receive them, we will add them to the bottom.