Seattle Times columnist suggest ways to close district’s achievement gap; proven strategies worth emulating

Seattle Times editorial columnist Donna Blankenship has some good suggestions about how to close the academic achievement gaps. She offers them to the Seattle School Board and administration. We think the ideas have merit statewide. She begins with this observation:

Every superintendent and school-board member in the nation talks about closing the achievement gap. They would deserve to be fired if that goal were not near the top of the agenda.

Then she deals with the persistence of the achievement gap in Seattle, and looks to successful experiences in Yakima and Highline. But what we want to focus on are the specific recommendations she makes (we shorten the discussion and recommend you read the column):

• High quality — and affordable — early learning.…University of Chicago and Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found early learning not only helps children succeed in school but also helps move their families up the economic ladder and creates adults who are healthier and more prosperous.

• Diligent attendance policies. Kids learn when they are in school. If they’re not in the classroom almost every day, they will fall behind…

• Intensive extra help for struggling children. In Washington, we call this the Learning Assistance Program

• An excellent, well-trained and supported teacher in every classroom. Research shows better teachers get better results.

These recommendations are consistent with those made in our 2017 foundation report.

Overall, the state high school graduation rate has risen incrementally in recent years.
But disturbing evidence of an opportunity gap underlies this trend. Graduation rates continue to be markedly lower for black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students as compared to their white and Asian peers. Graduation rates are also markedly lower for struggling students (those who score below proficiency on state assessments) and at schools the state has designated as low performing.

Closing achievement gaps and improving outcomes for struggling students and those attending low-performing schools is essential to a statewide effort to expand opportunity and shared prosperity. The state should:

  • Improve K-12 Financing: Lawmakers must ensure that state education investments lead to improved student and school performance. This includes revamping the school funding model to put the needs of students first.

  • Enhance Supports and Accountability: The state must be able to identify low-performing schools and struggling students, and use a robust accountability system to target resources. Policymakers should strengthen support and intervention strategies, measure and report on progress, and set clear timelines for performance improvement with concrete consequences.

  • Increase Access to Educator Talent: The state should work to increase the supply of excellent teachers and broaden their impact by attracting and retaining more high-caliber candidates, providing incentives for excellent teachers to serve in leadership roles, and expanding their reach to serve more students.

We’re not claiming to have invented the formula. We had access to some of the same research Blankenship cites. And we drew similar conclusions. As she writes of her recommendations,

This is just the start of a much longer, well-known list.

Educators and policymakers often know what needs to be done. Generating the sustained commitment to act, however, can be a challenge. We wrote last month of legislation introduced in Olympia that would advance progress in closing the achievement gaps in our state. About a year ago, we cited a Washington Roundtable study outlining strategies for improving low-performing schools.

Extending opportunity to all parts of the state … making possible the goal of shared prosperity … begins with making sure all students get the education they need to realize their full potential. Persistent achievement gaps show we still have a lot to do to read that goal.