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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 04:47 am

No gap, no letting go

Closing the achievement gap is doable — and must be done

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A veteran Springfield teacher expressed frustration as she left the Nov. 14 forum on “Closing the Achievement Gap”: “We’re already doing so much of what they suggested, but we’re not closing the gap.” A school official was defensive, claiming that the district is already doing what it needs to do to close the gap between rich and poor, black and white. Judith Johnson, president of the District 186 school board, had listened as one of the audience of some 180 people. “This gives me hope,” she said on the way out. “I am always hopeful that we can solve this problem.”
There is plenty of cause for frustration, even cynicism, in the face of the daunting numbers showing that white students are far outpacing blacks in public schools but that neither side is setting the world on fire. Ken Page, president of the Springfield NAACP, declared that the achievement gap is a policy, designed “to keep African-Americans subservient,” but the dominant message from the panelists was one of hope. “We know how to solve the achievement gap,” said Ray Legler of Learning Point Associates, a Naperville nonprofit consulting group. “Closing the gap is doable,” said Kathy Havens Payne, who heads the State Farm insurance company’s effort to support public education. They convinced me. There is in the American spirit a notion that any problem that can be identified, defined, and quantified can be solved. Now, thanks to George W. Bush and his simplistic, underfunded No Child Left Behind education law, the problem has come into sharp focus. Children are being left behind all over the place. Of Springfield eighth-graders, for example, only 53 percent of white students and 24.4 percent of black students are meeting or exceeding standards in math. Thanks to NCLB, nobody doubts the truth of the numbers — and nobody finds them acceptable. Currently the statistics are seen as an indictment, but, once they start to move, the percentages rising and the gap narrowing, progress will inspire more progress. “The data can be our friend,” Legler says.
Teacher quality is a major factor. “We need teachers who won’t accept failure as an option,” Legler says. School structures need to be flexible enough to allow teachers to spend more time with slow learners. Communities need to take more responsibility for extras such as lunches and sports so that schools can educate kids. And schools need more money. Achievement-gap experts agree that money isn’t the only thing, but it is a crucial gap-closing ingredient. “In order to do this right, we have to have the resources,” Legler says. “Good books and science labs make a difference.” So do teacher salaries. The thing about the school-funding situation that inspires hope is that Illinois is so near the bottom, things have to get better. Payne called Illinois the nation’s “poster child” for school-funding inequities. The difference in per-pupil spending between the richest and poorest school districts is an embarrassing $19,361, among the highest in the nation. And the amount the state contributes to school funding is among the lowest in the nation. The situation cries out for school-funding reform, financed by a tax increase. Surely someday soon a politician will emerge who is bold enough to speak that truth. As State Farm’s leadership on this issue demonstrates, the business community is starting to realize how much of a negative impact poor schools have on economic competition. “Please understand,” pleaded Payne, “that our economy will be drastically different three to five years from now if we don’t do something about education.” China is already outpacing the United States in the number of students who graduate from college, and it will open 100 to 150 universities in the next five years. In math and science, U.S. students lag behind those in much of the rest of the world. Public attention is key to a solution. This forum, one of a planned series on the achievement gap, is bound to foster change through increased awareness. For it we have to thank Sheila Stocks-Smith of the mayor’s Office of Education Liaison. By focusing on a few crucial issues and working in cooperation with the schools, that small office has more than justified the meager public investment used to create it. It deserves full funding. Meanwhile, Springfield is quickly becoming irreversibly aware of school-performance issues. One day soon, a panelist predicted, we’ll know our school’s report-card scores as well as we know its football scores.