“We’ve squeezed all the benefits we’re going to out of our laser-like focus on measuring outcomes.” That’s the assessment of Dr. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, and editor of a book about closing the opportunity gap.
Welner bases part of that assessment on the limited success of national efforts to improve educational outcomes, particularly among lower-income children, over the past 25 years. According to research in the book, some outcomes improved between 1983 and 1990, when school reform came into vogue, but have flat-lined since.
Opportunity Precedes Achievement
For the first years of educational reform, efforts were made to close the achievement gap that accompanied economic disadvantage. Today though, the emphasis is on the opportunity gap. There has been growing recognition that poor academic results don’t appear out of thin air; they are functions of underlying issues, in this case, reduced opportunities due to living in poverty.
This is particularly important because, according to a UNICEF study of 35 advanced economies, the U.S. is 34th in percentage of children living in poverty, just behind Bulgaria. Nearly a quarter of American school children live in poverty, compared to 4% in Finland.
“The status quo of test-based accountability reform needs to give way to new, evidence-based approaches…” Welner said.
No Single Answer
There is no magic formula to increase opportunity for economically and socially disadvantaged students. There are, however, evidence-supported best practices that can be instituted in Title 1 schools to help children succeed. These are the practices that Charleston Promise Neighborhood has worked to replicate in four elementary schools in The Neck area since its founding in 2010.
A report from the Harvard Kennedy School on closing the opportunity gap found that children in low-income schools are less affected by the state of the physical plant or technology in the schools than they are by a rigorous and engaging curriculum.
The research found that children in schools like Charleston Promise Neighborhood schools — Mary Ford Elementary, Sanders-Clyde School of the Arts, etc. – prospered under the following conditions:
- There are highly skilled principals and teachers in leadership positions
- There is a focus on early math and literacy, with a knowledge- and vocabulary-rich curriculum.
- Teachers require higher-level thinking of students in ways that are relevant and meaningful in their lives.
- The course in content-rich and connects with other subjects, including the arts.
- There are high expectations for all students.
Best Practices Operating Here
Other strategies that have proven successful are extra-curricular student support, like Charleston Promise Neighborhood’s after-school programs; and robust wraparound services, like the KidsWell project brought into the schools by Charleston Promise Neighborhood and run by MUSC.
Other research suggests that community involvement in the schools, particularly that of the parents, is critical to improving opportunities, and ultimately, results.
The isolated educational success stories around the national have all combined a reliance on empirical evidence, a heart for the children in the schools, a willingness to try whatever works, and robust community engagement. This is the formula being pursued by in The Neck by Charleston Promise Neighborhood.