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Big gaps, small successes in K-12 education

To charter or not to charter? Is equity in education the new coconut water? How far are we from closing achievement gaps?

To charter or not to charter? Is equity the same as equality? And how much progress have we made toward closing achievement gaps?

The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) brought education experts, leading practitioners and Stanford students together on Nov. 10 to address these vexing questions. The panelists speaking at the Policy Forum on K-12 Education provided informative snapshots of what works, what doesn’t, and what the future could hold.

SIEPR Policy Forum event
At the Nov. 10 SIEPR Policy Forum on K-12 Education, Stanford sophomore Andrew Dallakoti, on the left, moderates a discussion with Northwestern University Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Reid Saaris, founder and CEO of Equal Opportunity Schools, on the challenges of closing achievement gaps.

Photo by Steve Castillo

An overarching consensus was the need to transform the status quo. Strong leadership at the district levels – to instigate and execute changes — is key.

Even as studies show that educational achievement gaps have been narrowing, progress has been painfully slow, panelists said.

If we keep at the same rate of improvement, it would take anywhere from 60 to 100 years for some of those gaps to close for student populations who are poor, Latino or black, Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of SIEPR, said in opening the forum.

The event featured three sessions on the following topics: the growth of charter schools; key issues facing K-12 education, and closing the achievement gap. The event was co-sponsored by the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the student group, Stanford in Government. Attendees included dozens of student participants as well as scholars and proponents working on the frontlines of education reform.

The panelists were: Macke Raymond, director of The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford; April Chou, chief growth and operating officer at KIPP Bay Area Schools; Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education Trust-West; Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University; and Reid Saaris, founder and CEO of Equal Opportunity Schools.

Session moderators were Hattie Gawande, a Stanford senior majoring in economics; Andrew Dallakoti, a Stanford sophomore and director of technology for Stanford in Government; and Duggan, also the Wayne and Jodi Cooperman Professor of Economics at Stanford.

For some student attendees, the presentations were eye-opening.

“Seeing and hearing the disparities and how the money is distributed — with less money going to those students in need — was real shocking to me,” said Kristen Anderson, a freshman who is working on her second charitable startup to connect high school students with businesses to deliver extra food to homeless shelters.

Constanza Hasselmann, a freshman interested in education policy, made sure to attend the SIEPR Policy Forum although it landed on a Friday and was her third special campus event of the week outside of class.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn more,” she said, praising how the forum offered perspectives from both a data-driven standpoint and that of public servants.

Highlights and links to watch recordings of each session are below.

The not-so-secret recipe of charter schools

Enrollment at charter schools have more than tripled since 2004, with more 7,000 schools across 44 states.

Many charter schools have improved the math and language arts skill levels of students in the underserved communities they target, Macke Raymond said.

Raymond likened the growth of — and resistance to — charter schools to a “new entrant problem” facing a century-old monopoly.

“The more incursion, the more the market share goes to charter schools, and the more success they’re able to demonstrate — it’s threatening the structure of the monopoly,” she said. But “the resources don’t change at the monopolist until they absolutely have to, until there’s an existential threat, and my theory is that we’re getting closer to that.”

Yet school district reforms don’t necessarily have to mean massive adoptions of charter schools.

The general recipe behind successful charter schools has been a powerful combination of flexibility and accountability, Macke said. They can tinker with their education models and allocation of resources, but they are simultaneously held to improvement goals and threatened with closure if they don’t meet them.

“There’s nothing inherently ‘charter’ about that framework,” Macke said. “We can make it happen with district schools.”

Panelist April Chou detailed the successes she’s seen at the San Francisco Bay Area charter schools in the KIPP network. Ninety-two percent of its high school seniors are participating in AP courses, compared to the state average of 24 percent, she said. And 68 percent of them are passing AP exams, more than twice the state average.

The charter schools set high expectations of the students — no matter their socioeconomic background — and work to deliver academic and emotional support through high-quality teaching, she said.

“You’ll see a consistent culture,” she said. “A leader with a very clear vision and a sense that the adults (at the school) and the students know why they are there, working together to meet those goals.”

Watch the first session

“Equity is the new coconut water”

“It’s become a liberal buzzword, but it has not actually, in my opinion, borne much fruit when it comes to practice yet,” said Ryan Smith, who leads a California-based research and advocacy organization focused on educational justice and high academic achievement for all students.

Equity is about recognizing historic and systemic disparities, Smith said, but it is also about moving beyond the mere conversation of the trendy topic to providing the resources needed to address those issues.

Rising income inequality over the past few decades has also complicated the landscape.

Schools with predominantly Latino or black students, for instance, are often not getting the same course offerings as their counterparts, he explained. As a result, they’re not given the same rigorous opportunities.

Though high school graduation rates and math scores among minorities in California have been improving in recent years, Smith said, the rate of progress is too slow.

It would take until the year 2080 before math achievement gaps for Latino students would close, he said. For black students, it would take until 2097.

There needs to be a greater sense of urgency in closing opportunity and achievement gaps, he said.

In addition to taking steps toward equity in funding, school districts should work on cultural and operational changes. Not following the typical practice of throwing rookie teachers at the toughest schools would be one example, he said. Developing more ways to train and recruit more teachers of color would also be beneficial.

Watch the second session

Achievement vs. opportunity gaps

Panelist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach showed one presentation slide after another on research data, comparing high- versus low-income students, looking across racial lines, seeing what colleges they get into, or tracing the test scores of 4th graders or 8th graders.

“There are tremendous gaps any way you cut it,” she said.

Then she showed the results of a cognitive study on 9-month-old babies, in which no differences were found across ethnicities.

“There does not appear to be innate differences; it’s something we’re doing,” Schanzenbach said.

Reid Saaris reminded the audience that the issue of “gaps” refers to real individuals.

And, he said, it’s important to think about the opportunities — or lack of them —that often underlie achievement gaps.

He drew on a personal experience that, to this day, motivates his work in pursuing equity in education.

As the son of a school counselor, Saaris said, he knew what steps to take to get a good college education. (He has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a master’s in business and education from Stanford.)

On the other hand, his best friend from childhood — a son of a single mother of five — ended up in a different set of high school classes. His mother did not go to high school and did not have the time to help his friend navigate the way to college.

“Our opportunity set was fundamentally different,” Saaris said. “And my friend has spent the past two decades trying to make up for what was lost at that juncture in our lives.”

Watch the third session

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