What We Need to Close the Achievement Gap

"The Boston Public Schools is strongly committed to maintaining high expectations for all students and to eliminating persistent disparities in achievement and performance among subgroups based on race, ethnicity, language or disability." — BPS Acceleration Agenda

The Boston Teachers Union is committed to working with the BPS to meet this goal. Our members welcome opportunities to become more effective in reaching and teaching ALL of our students.

What is needed to close the achievement gap?

Strong leadership and a collaborative approach from BPS in addressing shortcomings, especially for Special Needs and English Language Learners (ELL)

The BTU and its members — along with many parent and community groups —have repeatedly pointed out shortcomings in BPS policies and leadership, especially in the areas of instruction for English Language Learners and Special Education students. As professionals, we expect to be heard when we provide feedback on the effectiveness of the policies adopted to address the achievement gap. We have contributions to make on: how services are delivered; the relevance of the curriculum; the effectiveness of the testing; and the resource requirements for carrying out this work.

In the area of instruction for English Language Learners, the BPS has been cited by the federal government for its failure to deliver appropriate services. But our union has been pointing to these shortcomings for years. Decline in the quality of instruction provided to ELL students has been marked since the passage of the Unz Initiative in November, 2002. This law severely restricted the teaching of non-native speakers in their own languages. It basically outlawed bilingual education in Massachusetts schools.

The law limited ELL students to one year of instruction in “sheltered English immersion” (SEI) classrooms that are supposed to teach students basic English language skills quickly. Then they are required to be “mainstreamed” into regular classes. While the city of Boston opposed this initiative, there have been serious problems with how the BPS revamped its programs in the aftermath of its passage. Only now is the school department starting to make positive changes.

Not surprisingly, we now have several parties applying to establish charter schools in Boston in the next year with a focus on serving English Language Learners. We believe that the district schools can do a better job. And we are committed to working with the BPS to accomplish this.

A similar situation exists regarding Special Education (SPED). Our SPED Faculty Senate draws talent from all SPED disciplines citywide. It has met continually with SPED administrators to point the department in the right direction. We have had some success. But, all too often, the department has taken a top-down approach to problem-solving.

Read the BPS position paper on eliminating the achievement gap.
Read the Superintendent's "Acceleration Agenda: Year One Progress.".

Additional funding to level the playing field for our poorest, urban school districts

As long our city and state leaders fail to tackle tax reforms that would provide more equitable and stable funding to Boston and other urban school districts to provide the services our students need, then our school system will continue to be crippled in its efforts to close the achievement gap.

Since the Education Reform Act of 1993 was enacted, the element that has been consistently downplayed or ignored was the need to proportionately increase funding to poor school districts. Low-income students and students of color in urban school systems like Boston have access to far fewer educational opportunities and supports inside and outside of school than do middle class and wealthy students in suburban cities and towns. Without extra funding and resources to level the academic playing field how can these children be expected to perform at the same level? (See an excellent book by former NY Times columnist Richard Rothstein — Class and Schools — for a detailed explanation as to how social class helps create the achievement gap.)

The current Massachusetts policy for charter school funding negatively impacts the budgets of the public schools. The public schools continue to serve the large majority of Special Needs students and English Language Learners. Money is drained from district schools — which provide an education for all – to charter schools, which have selectively avoided SPED and ELL students. While some of this 'creaming' of students is supposed to disappear under the new state Ed Reform Law, that remains to be seen. However, the failure to address problems with the funding of charter schools, especially as the number increases, will have a very negative impact on our public schools.

More than just school reform

The correlation between social and economic disadvantage and a student achievement gap has been well established over the years by economists, sociologists and educators. Current political initiatives that imply that through education reform alone the achievement gap can be closed are misguided at best and politically self-serving at worst.

What is needed to help close the achievement gap in addition to better and more effective schools? Access to better health care, including eye and dental care; adult education, job training and job development for families in low income areas; violence prevention; access to stable and affordable housing. Effective teaching is crucial, but it is hardly sufficient to help a student who is plagued by the threat of gang violence; or who suffers from the pain of chronic tooth decay; or whose family is constantly moving or homeless. Increasing support services available to students and their families through the schools can help — but that takes funding.

Of course, there are students who do well in spite of facing numerous economic, social and academic obstacles. But to really fulfill the goal of "No Child Left Behind" a more systemic socio-economic program is needed to close the achievement gap. We say this not to make excuses or throw up our hands. Teachers know they are on the front lines and want to do their part. We just want to make sure that leaders from all parts of society step up to accept responsibility for their role in changing the conditions of life and work for BPS students and their families. Only then can we really hope to equalize the playing field and make closing the achievement gap a realizable goal and not just a well-intended or politically calculated intention.