Sunder Discusses Achievement Gap

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Madhavi Sunder  in November
Madhavi Sunder in November

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.

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28 thoughts on “Sunder Discusses Achievement Gap”

  1. wdf1

    Sunder:  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. 

    The achievement gap is not a new discussion topic for the district or the school board.  I think it would be productive to review how the district has approached this policy in the past, and use that as a starting point to evaluate what kinds of strategies have helped and what haven’t.  In 2007 the Achievement Gap Task Force submitted a report with 11 recommendations, some including specific mention of Montgomery Elementary.

    I would hope that current board discussion and action doesn’t result in creating an achievement gap magnet school at Montgomery — some would argue this is already the de facto situation.  There is already a strong tendency toward segregating higher needs students at Montgomery because of city development and housing trends, frequently mentioned in Vanguard comments (for example).  Every elementary school has higher needs students based on income, family education level, ELL status, and special ed. status.  It would help to identify strategies that can be portable to other elementary sites.

    Sunder: What are these barriers, what are we doing, and what more can we do to overcome them?

    The suggestions mentioned are good ones, definitely ones understood conventionally to be helpful.  The nature of these suggestions indicates that this is an issue that requires more than just public education to solve, which I think has been a mistake for many education reform strategies.

    Some other solutions worth considering in the mix:

    *Accessible prenatal care to pregnant mothers who may fall in the critical demographic groups.

    *Equitable access to the full range of core academic subjects, which include arts and foreign languages (lower income ELL students, many from Spanish speaking families, don’t necessarily get encouraged to take foreign languages like Spanish, and therefore lose their ability to function as well in their original primary language)

    *Smaller class sizes

    *De-emphasize standardized test scores as an ultimate measure of educational achievement

    *Seek ways to better integrate families in the critical demographic groups into community discussions about local public education.

    *Work with the city to avoid concentrating lower income families into particular neighborhoods

    *Summer enrichment activities

    *Better accessible programs for parent education, particularly those that will lead to better English fluency/literacy, high school equivalency, and prep for community college or other post HS level education.  If parents can be involved in educational self-improvement, it will set an example for their kids.

  2. The Pugilist

    The achievement gap seems to be something everyone talks about, but there is no action.  At least Sunder puts a little more meat on it than Adams did yesterday.

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    This is well written, but there are at least two glaring omissions.

    1. What measures, successes, and failures have been implemented nationally, statewide, and locally? What worked, what didn’t? We’ve been at this for years, decades. If public schools have failed with this gap, how have private schools dealt with it?

    It makes little sense to recreate the wheel.

    2. The Elephant in the Room is Illegal Immigration.

    This is not a pro or anti illegal immigration argument, but merely an acknowledgement of the facts.

    More than fifteen years ago I had a discussion with an elementary school teacher (a staunch liberal) who teaches in the Bay Area. I brought up the increased complexity of a teacher having to teach a student who was under-performing, had lower skills, and English was their seconds language. We discussed several issues which tied directly to language skills.

    “There is a second major issue,” she told me. “It’s not just that they are learning a new language. It’s not that their first language is French, Polish, or Spanish… Most of our students are from Mexico or Central America, and they don’t even formally know their own language. This is critical. If a student speaks and writes French or Spanish formally, it is much, much easier to teach them English. They acquired their first language, there is a process of learning, and we can build on that. And typically their parents can’t offer much support or guidance.”

    Comparing American students who struggle, to these new arrivals, is apples and oranges. The political consequences are another matter, and so I’d hope that the liberal side of the isle (like Governor Brown) who encourage these new students would be prepared and would have answers.

    The Sacramento Bee recently had an article that noted that California now leads the nation in poverty. We are starting to see the consequences to our decisions.

      1. MrsW

        To me, the “elephant in the room” is DJUSD’s infrastructure for self-segregation and the lengths to which our community, BOE, and teachers defend the practice.

    1. wdf1

      TBD:  2. The Elephant in the Room is Illegal Immigration.

      Davis JUSD doesn’t have the authority to reject any student based on immigration status.  The Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than predecessor administrations.  On that basis there’s little point in talking about it in this forum.  DJUSD has to address the needs of all students who register.

      TBD: Most of our students are from Mexico or Central America, and they don’t even formally know their own language.

      That is because they come from lower income levels from parents who don’t have high levels of education.  Mexicans (and Central Americans) who are better educated (with a higher level of literacy) don’t generally have as much incentive to immigrate illegally to the U.S.

      It would be an ideal broader strategy to consider bilingual education for such students, as they are in a better situation to become bilingually literate (probably a great thing in a 21st century global economy), but in California schools are prevented from doing this (offering bilingual education) because of Prop. 227.  The only reason that Davis’ Spanish Immersion and Dual Immersion programs can get away with it is that parents are required to fill out waiver forms every year to participate in those programs.

      Also, if the parents are illegal immigrants, then they’re  less likely to want to come in and seek help on how to help their kids in school.  And they’re less likely to sign up for federal government assistance (welfare) because it risks giving over information that could be used to identify and deport them.  For all the challenges, it still generally beats the hell out of being poor in Mexico and dealing with their criminal/drug violence.

        1. Don Shor

          It would be an ideal broader strategy to consider bilingual education for such students, as they are in a better situation to become bilingually literate (probably a great thing in a 21st century global economy), but in California schools are prevented from doing this (offering bilingual education) because of Prop. 227.  The only reason that Davis’ Spanish Immersion and Dual Immersion programs can get away with it is that parents are required to fill out waiver forms every year to participate in those programs.

           

  4. Misanthrop

    “1. What measures, successes, and failures have been implemented nationally, statewide, and locally? What worked, what didn’t? We’ve been at this for years, decades. If public schools have failed with this gap, how have private schools dealt with it?”

    Problem is that there has been tremendous turn over at Montgomery over the years. Maybe there are some people who have been at the district long enough to be evaluated partly on how the district has done with this issue but I wouldn’t know who they are. As for the board only one has been there for longer than three years so its hard to use historical data to figure out who should be held responsible for any successes or failures. Private schools don’t have the same problems. If you can afford private school and are an english learner its likely that your family is not one of the one’s you describe as not even knowing their first language.

     

    “2. The Elephant in the Room is Illegal Immigration.”

    Maybe they are or maybe they aren’t but lamenting that they are here isn’t going to help anybody.

  5. MrsW

    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%.

     This would be a good place to include numbers (human lives), as well as percentages.  In 2014-15, the total number of students enrolled in DJUSD was 8,626.  19% of 8,626 is 1,639.  The number of students at Montgomery (1 out of 8 elementary schools)  in 2012-13 was 402.  60% of 402 is 241.  Now, 241 out of 1,639 is 14% of all disadvantaged students and 3% of all of the district’s students. 

     Health is essential for children to be ready to learn. 

    Absolutely agree with this general sentiment, but am alarmed that after providing food, Sunder goes right to “psychological services.” What about the role of basic manners, character, resiliency, confidence and human connection that contribute to a person’s success?  What about being comfortable talking to people who have been raised differently than you have?  The reality at public schools is that adults come and go.  Psychologists come and go.  Childhood is not pathological. Vast numbers of children are thinking and processing their experiences, as children.  They don’t need a crisis counselor, they need life coaching.

    1. wdf1

      MrsW:  What about the role of basic manners, character, resiliency, confidence and human connection that contribute to a person’s success?  What about being comfortable talking to people who have been raised differently than you have? 

      The stuff that gets ignored if one focuses too much on raising standardized test scores.

        1. wdf1

          TBD:  The state and federal governments have mandated standardized test scores and score thresholds to determine what happens to a school — whether it goes into program improvement, teachers and principals get fired, or the school gets shut down.  When a school’s very existence depends on standardized test scores and nothing else, then that affects the rest of what gets taught or doesn’t get taught.  This is a big reason why I oppose the way standardized tests have been used.

          Personally I think my kids have had good experiences with most Davis teachers as far as instilling these “non-cognitive” skills.  But being unmeasurable, that is somewhat up for debate with other parents, like maybe MrsW or you (but you’re not a parent, are you?).

        2. wdf1

          Personally I think my kids have had good experiences with most Davis teachers as far as instilling these “non-cognitive” skills.

          And this is something we have worked on as parents with our own kids.

    2. South of Davis

      Mrs W. wrote:

      > Now, 241 out of 1,639 is 14% of all disadvantaged students

      > and 3% of all of the district’s students.

      It would be interesting to see if the district keeps tabs on the students family income “and” education levels.  Davis schools have a lot of young kids with a parent making next to nothing teaching a couple undergrad classes trying to finish their PhD. (while the spouse with a master’s degree stays home with the baby).

      While a single income couple who both have undergrad and master’s degrees from Cal and Stanford may make less “money” than a dual income couple from Mexico who both dropped out of school in the 3rd grade I would not call the kids with the well educated parents “disadvantaged”…

       

      1. The Pugilist

        “It would be interesting to see if the district keeps tabs on the students family income “and” education levels. ”

        They don’t

        “While a single income couple who both have undergrad and master’s degrees from Cal and Stanford may make less “money” than a dual income couple from Mexico who both dropped out of school in the 3rd grade I would not call the kids with the well educated parents “disadvantaged”…”

        The district’s data shows the biggest correlate of success is education of the parents and yet the children of educated parents who are black and Hispanic do significantly less well than those who parents are white or Asian.  Hence the achievement gap is robust and holds when controlling for education of the parent.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          Google Dr. Ogbu (formerly of UC Berkeley) and his study of the Cleveland upper middle class Shaker Heights School District and achievement gap.

          “The noted anthropologist John U. Ogbu argues in a recently published book that African-Americans’ cultural attitudes toward education, their generally minimal involvement in schools, and black students’ own lack of effort contribute to the persistent achievement gap.”

          http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2003/03/12/26ogbu.h22.html

          Dr. Ogbu had no axe to grind, and was invited in to conduct his study by the Shaker Heights black parents. He declined their first requests.

        2. MrsW

          African-Americans’ cultural attitudes toward education, their generally minimal involvement in schools, and black students’ own lack of effort contribute….

          Cynicism is a natural human response, when you look around you and see those who are high achievers worked twice as hard to get half the distance.

          Isolation from other perspectives re-enforces cynicism.

          I think it’s irrational for the government, i.e. DJUSD, to further isolate groups of students and hope that the outcome will be different than it’s been for innumerable decades.

           

      2. wdf1

        SoD:  It would be interesting to see if the district keeps tabs on the students family income “and” education levels.

        Pugilist:  They don’t

        The district doesn’t have exact family income, but they do have data for eligibility for free or reduced lunch for each student, which reflects a certain income level.  They also record the education level of the family.

      3. MrsW

        I was pointing out the numbers of students specifically at Montgomery because, to me, the next question to ask is: if we concentrate a ton of resources at Montgomery and we achieve 100% closure in the gap of standardized test scores, will the district be able to “see” their improvement?  I don’t think so.  14% is almost in the noise.

        1. wdf1

          The district looks at test score data districtwide, but also at specific sites.  If, hypothetically, Montgomery achieved 100% closure of the achievement gap, I think the district would definitely notice.  If the closure of the achievement gap among 14% of the students were more diffuse, among a dozen or so campuses, then I think the district would have a harder time noticing.

    3. Misanthrop

      Rarely have I ever seen these sorts of skills taught in the public schools. Way back in the day they had “finishing schools” to teach these skills. Barry Gordy would send his new, young stars at Motown for lessons on how to represent oneself and the Motown brand.

      Maybe individual teachers take it upon themselves to insist that students say please and thank you or make students take off a hat in class. We try to teach conflict resolution but there are many skills that if not taught in the home don’t get taught in the schools. I have long thought that there should be social skills classes taught for those children who either through neglect or cultural differences aren’t learning basic societal norms of behavior at home.

      1. MrsW

        When society enforces Zero Tolerance policies and 3 Strikes laws, the stakes are even higher to have competent social skills.  Or when a student does everything right–per DJUSD and Davis adults’ rules–and gets a 4.7 GPA, is a star athlete, etc–and still doesn’t get into UCLA or Berkeley, being able to handle disappointment and betrayal is what that child needs.

        I’ve provided this link or a similar one before.  San Leandro, Berkeley and some other districts are  integrating critical social competencies into their day. School Can Be Such an Emotional Place They way it’s described, it looks pretty natural.

      2. TrueBlueDevil

        They did in private schools, including Catholic schools, a few decades back. I’ll have to check to see if they still do. Manners, discipline, which may have also been helped by the dean of women and dean of men.

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