Peter Callaghan: While the adults argue, education achievement gap remains

Staff WriterMarch 11, 2014 

It was coincidental that Kati Haycock was in the area last week in the midst of legislative debate over two important education reform issues.

Coincidental, perhaps, but not inconsequential. Haycock is president of the Education Trust based in Washington, D.C., an organization founded in 1990 to focus attention on the achievement gaps in American public schools. (Since it gets some funding from the Gates Foundation, ed reform conspiracy theorists can take the rest of the column off.)

Among the organization’s founding beliefs is that the gaps that harm low-income and minority students are resolvable. Unlike an increasing number of people on the political left, the trust still believes in upward mobility through education.

Haycock was here to speak at the awards ceremony for the Roadmap Project. During an interview, I asked her about the increasing reaction against key aspects of education reform — higher standards, better assessments of student growth, accountability for adults in the system.

“The challenge now is a timeline challenge that has created excuses for push-back,” she said. In much of the country, states are putting in place two reforms simultaneously — Common Core Standards and the inclusion of student growth data in teacher and principal evaluations.

“It has upped the fear factor considerably,” she said. “If I’m a teacher and I know the first time I’ll have testing be a part of my evaluation is a test I’ve never seen before,” she said, “that’s going to make me very anxious.”

Many oppose using student growth data in evaluations at all, but even those who are not opposed wonder how it can be implemented fairly.

“We’re freaking ’em out a bit,” she said. Haycock, therefore, supports efforts by federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan to slow down implementation, something she dubbed “letting some oxygen into this.” Even more oxygen is needed, she said, “because it makes sense.”

Her visit came just a week after she weighed in to support Senate Bill 6552, the measure to require high schools to implement the 24-credit diploma – sometimes called the meaningful diploma.

“The data are clear that far too many of Washington’s young people lack options after high school,” she wrote lawmakers. “Washington trails most other states when it comes to college-going rates. … Only about half of the state’s graduates go on to college, and only four in 10 meet the admission requirements” of the state’s four-year universities.

Haycock also said the problems go beyond those bound for four-year college. One-third of black students and one-quarter of Hispanic students struggle to meet the minimum requirements to enlist in the Army, she wrote.

And no, she wrote, higher standards do not increase dropout rates. San Jose, a racially and economically diverse district, saw no change in dropouts after increasing high school requirements.

I asked her about the trend among Democrats to move away from public education reform, something once led by Democrats, especially at the state level. She lamented the loss of Democratic education reformers in Congress such as the late-Sen. Edward Kennedy and retiring Rep. George Miller. And she said the next Democratic presidential nominee is unlikely to take on the teachers unions and the education establishment as has President Obama.

But she argued that the underlying issues should still resonate with people from both parties.

“The challenge is straight-forward,” she said. “In the last decade we’ve made some progress in improving elementary and middle school but virtually no progress in changing results in high school.”

Support for testing and higher standards is highest among black and Hispanic parents who “know their kids have been held to different and often lower standards.”

Those common assessments, including the statewide tests that Duncan insists the states use and include in evaluation of teachers and principals, have been the means of identifying and maintaining attention on the gaps.

But what about the lament that unless and until we cure poverty, it is unfair to hold the public schools accountable for results?

“Yeah, poverty matters,” said Haycock. “It makes it more challenging for the kids and more challenging for the teachers. But it doesn’t make learning impossible.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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