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JHU School of Education Hosts Panel Discussion on How to Close the Achievement Gap in our Schools


Dr. Robert Balfanz and Andrea Foggy-Paxton chat before the panel discussion starts.


How do we go about closing the achievement gap in our schools?

a) fix” the teaching profession

b) “fix” the schools

c) create better pathways for success to help guide underprivileged children

d) create better weapons of mass instruction

Answer: (e) All of the above, according to four education experts who recently participated in a panel discussion on Closing the Achievement Gap.

The discussion was part of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Shaping the Future Discussion Series. This particular panel focused on ways to improve educational opportunities for all students by identifying programs and strategies for raising achievement and closing gaps between white and minority students.

Fixing the teaching profession

“We need better evaluations, and we need to tie those evaluations to meaningful consequences for the teachers,” said Andy Smarick, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Adjunct Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “We know too little about who are the good teachers.”

Smarick also pointed out that the highest performing teachers are, on average, not in the lower performing schools or classrooms.

“How do you fix that?” he asked. “By returning to busing? By adjusting teacher salaries so that teachers are paid more to teach in the lower performing schools?”

Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman, author of It’s the Classroom, Stupid: a Plan to Save America’s Schoolchildren and former member of Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, also cited a lack of proper professional development opportunities as part of the problem for teachers.

Fixing the schools

According  to Dr. Robert Balfanz, Research Scientist, JHU Center for Social Organization of Schools and Co-Director of the Talent Development Middle and High School Project, focused his opening remarks on the four points during students’ school experiences where we “lose” students and create an achievement gap in the mathematics: first grade, middle school, ninth grade, and community college.

“We need to make middle school more engaging,” Balfanz said, as he addressed the four points. “In high school, we need better remediation.”

Smarick focused on the need to “start fresh to build a culture of excellence within the schools.” He called on school administrators to take a closer look at all factors that go into the educational experience, including the length of the school day, the length of the school year, and the length of individual classes.

Smarick also addressed the need for more school systems to embrace the “charter school” delivery model where the public school system monitors public schools that are run by private, non-profit organizations.

Creating better pathways for success

For Andrea Foggy-Paxton, Program Officer in the U.S. Program, College Ready Unit, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, creating pathways of success is a key element in closing the achievement gap.

“In today’s world, you need a college education to compete in the workforce,” Foggy-Paxton said. “But too many of our low-income students are graduating with a high school diploma that isn’t preparing them for college.”

Foggy-Paxton focused specifically on creating pathways that emphasize STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education as a gateway out of poverty.

“We’ve seen studies that extra mathematics classes lead to 15% higher annual income for black males,” she said. “It’s not just about college readiness. It’s also making sure these students understand market dynamics. So many of them talk about majoring in communications or business or liberal arts. They don’t realize the opportunities lie in the STEM fields.”

Foggy-Paxton used Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan as examples.

“They both started practicing and learning the skills they’d need to succeed in their respective sports when they were really young,” she said. “Why aren’t we doing the same training for STEM careers with our low-income youth?”

Balfanz echoed Foggy-Paxton’s sentiments.

“We need to create well-marked pathways so that students see if they do A and B it will result in X and Y,” he said. “We need to expose them to more mentors in the STEM fields. We need to create connections of people to bring the kids along. We need to build public pathways. Right now, we just have private pathways.”

“So many students don’t know college is an option. They don’t know student loans are an option,” Smarick said. “We need to create pathways so that students are learning about careers when they’re five and taking college tours when they’re eight and learning about STEM careers when they’re nine.

“We need to create these wraparound services as early as we can so that, when a student is in first grade, he’s hearing that he’s the college graduating class of 2024 versus a first grader,” he added.

Create better weapons of mass instruction

Balfanz and Foggy-Paxton also talked about the need to improve after-school programming so that it achieves two goals: a) works hand-in-hand with the schools so that the teaching that goes on after school complements the work being done during class, and b) delivers that instruction in a more interesting and dynamic way so as to draw the students in.

“After-school programming, if done right, can be the thing that makes a kid come to school,” Balfanz said. “But it’s only good if it helps the kid succeed in school.”

Hettleman, who was the first to use the “weapons of mass instruction” phrase during his remarks, talked about the need to improve the design and delivery of classroom instruction.

“Look at special education as an example,” he said. “You put six or seven kids – all with Individualized Education Programs – in one room. You’re setting the teachers up for failure.”

He called on the need to create national standards and tests and to do a better job of funding education, especially urban school systems. “We need to have federally funded research and development in the  education field so we can establish research-based best practices for our field,” he added.

So where do we go from here?

“Abolish school boards,” advised Hettleman. “Put mayors in charge and install the idea of executive accountability. We need to bring in bold, non-traditional leadership for our schools.”

“We need to set expectations that every student  should be ‘college ready’ at the end of high school and let the students make the choice whether they’re ready for college or not,” said Foggy-Paxton. “We need to create pathways that show them their path out of poverty.”

“We need to figure out what are the social, emotional, and academic supports that keep students engaged in school,” said Balfanz.

“We need to recognize that this is a problem for all of us,” Smarick said, “not just those of us who are living in the lower income bracket. The best principals manage to install the idea of one school, one family, one community, with all of their parents. They make the parents realize they’re all on one team, and that may mean differentiated programs so that all of the students succeed.”

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soe-closing-the-achievement-gap-speakers-31.jpg                     soe-closing-the-achievement-gap-attendees1.jpg

Panelists Kalman "Buzzy"                                 Attendees talk during the reception before

Hettleman and Andy Smarick chat                    the panel discussion

before the event.

CATEGORY: Academics, Research