By Madhavi Sunder
Editor’s note: The Vanguard submitted questions to all five of the school board members on the issue of AIM and also the Achievement Gap. Previously we had Susan Lovenburg and Alan Fernandes and Barbara Archer. Yesterday we had Tom Adam’s answers. Madhavi Sunder has decided to separate the question of the Achievement Gap from that of AIM. Her response to the Achievement Gap is below.
Last September the Board at our annual retreat identified the achievement gap as one of our priorities for the year. (The year before we focused on students’ social and emotional wellbeing, with later start for all secondary students and increased nursing and elementary counseling as our capstone achievements in this regard.)
As Board President this year, I have directed the Superintendent and his staff to report on our achievement gap in our schools at the first Board meeting of each month. At our next regularly scheduled meeting on April 7, we will be focusing on Montgomery Elementary School, which has a disproportionate number of low income students and English Language Learners. Many in our community may be surprised to know that 19% of children in the Davis public schools are socioeconomically disadvantaged. At Montgomery Elementary, the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students is 60%.
In a university town that boasts excellent schools and high test scores, Davis’s achievement gap is often invisible. Yet it persists here at rates that mirror the achievement gap in the state and nation. Consistent with national trends, the greatest achievement gap exists among students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and English Language Learners. Among Davis students who are not socioeconomically disadvantaged, 74% meet or exceed state standards in math and 77% meet or exceed state standards in English language arts. But among the Davis students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, only 30% meet or exceed state standards in math and 35% meet or exceed state standards in English language arts.
Parent education level (which is related to income) also strongly correlates to student academic achievement. Among Davis students whose parents hold only a high school degree, only 20% meet or exceed state standards in math and 25% meet or exceed state standards in English language arts. At Montgomery Elementary School, 50% of parents do not have a college degree, as compared to 10-20% at other elementary schools. English Language Learners are another at risk group identified by the state. These students make up 11% of Davis students. Of our Davis English Language Learners, 25% meet or exceed state standards in math and only 12% meet or exceed state standards in English language arts.
The American Dream is for each person to be able to attain the fullest potential to which he or she is capable, regardless of their birth or position. Public schools have played and continue to play a crucial role in achieving this dream. Confronting the achievement gap in Davis and elsewhere requires addressing the particular barriers facing low income and other at risk children including homeless children, migrant children, foster youths, and English Language Learners. What are these barriers, what are we doing, and what more can we do to overcome them?
- Early childhood education is a critical foundation for future success. Research shows that poor children who do not have access to quality preschool begin Kindergarten behind other children (academically and socially) and have trouble catching up. Our district has a terrific special education preschool program, Head Start, and Transitional Kindergarten, but we do not know the number of low income families in our district who still do not have a quality preschool option for their children. I hope our district will work with County Superintendent Jesse Ortiz in the coming months as he seeks to bring Quality Preschool for All to Yolo County children who cannot otherwise afford preschool.
- Physical and mental health. Health is essential for children to be ready to learn. But many of our poorest and at risk children are hungry, and suffer from the trauma of multiple “adverse childhood experiences,” from homelessness to broken homes. Our schools provide children in need with free or reduced price breakfast, lunch and in some cases afterschool snack. We have a summer feeding program for children in need. Last year the Board increased elementary school counseling services and we are beginning to introduce “trauma-informed” counseling. Trustee Alan Fernandes and I have been working with County Supervisors Jim Provenza and Don Saylor to see how we can leverage our partnership with the county to provide resources to district families in need of health and mental health care. Earlier this year we did a site visit to see in-school health and mental health clinics in Contra Costa County, and will be continuing to explore how to bring these services to students in need.
- Academic support. Extended learning from afterschool to summer programs have proven effective in improving student performance. A summer “literacy camp” at Montgomery Elementary, for example, has helped stem losses in reading gains that typically occur in low income students over summer. An astounding 80-90% of the students who participated in Montgomery’s program did not regress and some advanced. The district has pioneered a “push in” reading program in third grade that allows small group reading help in a crucial year before children stop “learning to read” and begin “reading to learn.” Math coaches perform an equally important role, as does the Academic Center at Davis Senior High School and the alternative, small learning environment at King High School. We need to know, however, how many students performing below grade level are not receiving support, and what more can be done to meet at risk students’ academic needs.
- Language, culture & race. Students need a welcoming, diverse, and nondiscriminatory environment to thrive. “Hate is Not a Davis Value.” But many poor, black and Latino students feel marginalized and invisible, and suffer from implicit bias and stereotypes that often translate into low expectations. We must create an inclusive climate, prioritize the mentorship of caring adults (at the Academic Center at DHS, UC Davis students from diverse backgrounds tutor and offer great role models for struggling kids), and explore and assess culturally affirming programs, such as Two-Way Bilingual Immersion at Montgomery Elementary, which allows native Spanish speaking families to volunteer in the classroom.
- Opportunities & Pathways. A variety of extracurricular opportunities and access to diverse college and career pathways is critical to engage and nurture students. Preparedness and access to STEM careers is particularly important, as these will be where most – and the high paying – jobs of the future will be.
In his recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam brings much needed attention to growing income inequality in the U.S. and its effects on equal opportunity. Putnam marshals social science data and detailed interviews to vividly demonstrate how children of poor families are struggling academically, socially, and emotionally, and are less able to break free of poverty through public education than in the past. Children of college-educated parents, in contrast, are receiving more attention and enrichment than ever before. The dichotomy in academic achievement and opportunity, Putnam writes, is contributing to an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots.
Putnam – whom The New York Times has called the “poet laureate of civil society”—deserves to have his book closely examined by policy makers, including those of us who serve on school boards. It is equally important to have a transparent and inclusive discussion about the implications of Putnam’s study for public education in Davis and elsewhere.
There seem to be two likely responses to Putnam’s analysis. One way to read Putnam is to say that we need to stop educating those with advantages from birth. Under this view, educating these advantaged kids further compounds their advantage.
A more thoughtful approach is for schools to provide what we know matters for future success to every child, including those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
The School Board this last year spent a great deal of time and effort seeking to reduce a diverse and successful AIM program, rather than focusing on improving programs for the disadvantaged. Worse still, the “achievement gap” served as a red herring during the AIM discussions. In fact, dismantling the AIM program does nothing to close the achievement gap, unless one’s goal is to close the gap by bringing the top down.
The Davis achievement gap mirrors state and national trends – but we can and must do better. Focusing on the many dimensions of the achievement gap dilemma – from access to quality preschool for the poor, to mental health and health services, to summer and afterschool programs, to career technical education and pathways to community college and the U.C. — we must help at risk children find opportunities to break the cycle of poverty and to realize their full potential. This is the central point of Putnam’s book – that the poorest children, who are also often children suffering from trauma, are our kids, and should be central in the hearts and minds of our community.