New York

Educators, policy makers: Schools alone not enough to close achievement gap

Policy makers have been taking too narrow a view of education, and one outcome is a persistent achievement gap correlated with socioeconomic status, according to “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” a statement released today by the Economic Policy Institute online and in full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post. Taking aim at those who argue that schools must take full responsibility for closing the achievement gap, the statement’s 60-plus signatories, representing a wide range of education ideologies, call for more attention to be paid to learning that takes place outside of the formal school day and to the development of children’s non-academic skills and characteristics.

Motivated by the debate over the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act, EPI, a left-leaning think tank, hopes to widen the policy debate beyond test scores. School improvement efforts — the cornerstone of NCLB — should be one component of the broader approach, the statement says, but where conventional wisdom says schools alone should be able to close the achievement gap, the report’s authors say real progress will require significant investment in early childhood and pre-school education; health services; and after-school and summer programs.

The notion of schools as full-service institutions is not unique or original, although in an era of test-driven accountability, the idea of schools as a place where children are cared for, not just taught, seems to have been lost. What’s unique is the statement’s repeated reference to evidence; it uses the vocabulary of data-driven, contemporary educators, not the rhetoric of social justice, to advance its position.

Unfortunately, the statement does not address how districts or states might pay for some of the commonsensical improvements it suggests. With an election looming, the timing may be right to challenge conventional educational thought, but offering only recommendations that require major cash infusions in lean times strikes me as quixotic.

Still, the reputations of the signatories make the statement worth thinking about. The co-chairs of the Broader, Bolder committee, recruited by EPI, are Helen Ladd, a professor at Duke University; Pedro Noguera, of New York University and an active participant in the city’s schools; and Tom Payzant, a former longtime superintendent of the Boston Public Schools who is now at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Other signers are researchers, educators, economists, and politicians.

Notably absent from the list of signatories is Joel Klein. Other urban superintendents, including Arne Duncan of Chicago and Rudy Crew of Miami (also a former NYC chancellor) signed on — why didn’t Klein?  One reason might be his continued insistence that schools and those who work in them should be held fully responsible for failing to educate all children; conceding the impact of poverty complicates many of his reforms. Still, his absence is disheartening because New York, unlike most municipalities, could actually take action on the EPI’s recommendations: Mayoral control would allow Mayor Bloomberg to pressure city agencies to coordinate and integrate their activities and initiatives.

EPI is looking for more signatories — you can add your name to the report online.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.