By Elizabeth Primas, NNPA ESSA Awareness Campaign Program Manager
States are in the driver’s seat when it comes to improving their struggling schools. But how can we make sure they’re not taking the “path of least resistance” when it comes to this important work, risking the academic prospects for students of color.
Building on the work done by Bellwether Education Partners, which conducted independent peer reviews of all 50 states’ and the District of Columbia’s ESSA plans that were required to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval, the Collaborative for Student Success analyzed plans to see which states are taking advantage of new-found flexibility regarding equity in education. The new report, Check State Plans: Promise to Practice, found that just 17 states met its threshold for even having enough public information to review. The report notes that the results are “sobering” in that “more than 9 million students attend schools that do not meet anyone’s standard for what is acceptable.” This is particularly acute for students of color and who come from low-income families.
The fact is, achievement gaps between white and black students exist. We see this time and again in the National Assessment of Education Progress as well as on individual states’ annual assessments. Students who attend inner city public schools tend to fare worse than their peers in suburban public schools. The gaps are even more pronounced when we look at private schools that draw privileged students away from city institutions. These racial divides segregate communities.
A reportfrom the Young Invincibles examines these divides and developed three main findings: (1) minorities disproportionately enroll in for-profit and community colleges, which can condemn them to a vicious cycle of debt; (2) college costs hit minority students harder than their white peers; and (3) the achievement gap is racially divided. While 36.2 percent of white students completed four years of college in 2015, just 22.5 percent of black students could say the same, according to the analysis. While that’s much better than the 1974 numbers in which just 5.5 percent of black students finished four years of college compared to 14 percent of white students, that progress leaves little cheer.
State education chiefs and their in-state partners at teaching and research institutions plus educators on the front lines have a real chance to make a difference for black students and other minorities. But do they have the courage to make the necessary changes?
The Collaborative’s report is a good starting point, and it provides a roadmap written by education and policy leaders who are displaying the courage necessary to create bold plans that prioritize equity. Low-performing schools must be identified as such and be given real plans with real accountability measures to improve. There have to be consequences for students who don’t make the grade, but for too long, our education system as a whole has punished students by not giving them the tools they need to succeed. We have to look at the institutions and root out systemic problems.
As such, the Promise to Practice reviewers evaluated state plans based on a rubric that included whether the state has a coherent vision for improving student outcomes, whether there is a strategic use of funding and alignment of resources, the use of evidence-based interventions, and how well state leaders engaged stakeholders. That last component is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of ESSA – federal lawmakers required states to gather input from a wide range of groups outside of traditional education. Civic groups, business leaders, parents and community activists were given a seat at the table.
We watched excitedly as several NAACP groups got involved from the very beginning, helping policy and lawmakers understand community and even neighborhood needs for the betterment of students. Still, it disheartening to learn that just 17 states are ready to identify and provide the kinds of supports that low-performing schools require. Other states can look at Colorado, which has developed a clear menu of school improvement items for districts to choose from, or Nevada where districts have to describe how their strategies for addressing equity gaps in funding applications. Nevada is also using equity-oriented data like behavior and attendance to understand schools’ challenges.
There’s so much anger and divisiveness in our society today, but the importance of education equity should be among the things on which we can all agree. Every single student in every single school, no matter where that school is located or what kind of home life the child has, must be given the tools and knowledge to succeed. We shouldn’t have to fight for this right – the right to an education. And yet we find ourselves year in, year out looking aghast at assessment scores that prove achievement gaps are still there. Thought-provoking analyses like that done by the Collaborative for Student Success will help close those gaps until they are well and truly gone.
Elizabeth Primas is an educator who spent more than 40 years working to improve education for children. She is the program manager for the NNPA’s Every Student Succeeds Act Public Awareness Campaign. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethprimas.
State education chiefs and their in-state partners at teaching and research institutions plus educators on the front lines have a real chance to make a difference for black students and other minorities. But do they have the courage to make the necessary changes?

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