Jefferson County Public Schools’ achievement gap — the racial disparity in test scores between white and black students — is one of the biggest points of criticism for the district, and it’s garnering extra attention in light of a potential state takeover.
Calling the gap “unconscionable,” interim state education commissioner Wayne Lewis named JCPS’s achievement gap as one reason for recommending a takeover in April. JCPS critics and takeover supporters have panned the gap as well, both before and after Lewis’ recommendation.
A recent Insider analysis found that while JCPS has an achievement gap that is worsening in some areas, Kentucky’s achievement gap across the state is widening at a faster pace than in JCPS. Still, some groups in the district face a 30 percentage point difference between white and black students’ scores.
How do urban school districts, whose students typically face barriers outside of the classroom, close their achievement gaps? Insider talked to education and school turnaround experts to find out. The answers have been lightly edited for length, clarity and style.
Urban schools can reduce achievement gaps between white students and students of color by leveling the playing field. Most instructional materials are not designed for the urban student and, therefore, do not address many of the cultural norms that exist for these students. Equaling the playing field involves not only creating and implementing programs that are culturally relevant for students of color but also requiring white students to understand the cultural norms and behaviors of their non-white student colleagues.
Another way to reduce achievement gaps between white students and students of color is by providing all students with the same access to resources and opportunities and holding all students to the same standard of excellence. While culturally relevant instruction is important and necessary, it should not be implemented at the expense of rigor and high expectations. Students will do what their teachers expect them to do, so holding all students to the same standard is critical.
—Marquita Blades, education consultant and former Title I school teacher
There are many reasons why large urban districts across the country face an achievement gap that impacts students of color. Teachers have a unique opportunity to close this gap, but many lack the training and professional development needed to change their mindset about what their students are capable of achieving.
Many teachers unknowingly harbor disempowering mindsets about the cultural experiences of their students, and many are trained to approach their classrooms and students in a ‘culturally neutral’ manner. This gets in the way of teachers’ ability to build authentic relationships with the youth they serve. A strong, life-altering bond is often the key to a teacher understanding what their student needs to achieve and ensuring students know their learning matters.
When educators are empowered with key strategies as well as belief in their students, we then support teachers to consistently communicate high expectations. This is the basis of No-Nonsense Nurturer and creates a classroom culture that results in high academic gains.
—Kristyn Klei Borrero, chief executive and co-founder of CT3
At Lexington Traditional Magnet School (LTMS), we have the privilege of serving a student population that is incredibly diverse, racially and economically. We are committed to closing the achievement gap, and to do that, we believe it’s incredibly important to have a firm understanding of where students are, personally and academically. We have implemented a mentoring program in which each student receives weekly one-on-one time with a staff mentor to discuss personal and academic goals. This is supported by a personalized learning program, Summit Learning, that provides real-time data on students’ academic progress.
In just the first year of implementation, we have seen the achievement gap narrow dramatically and have seen significant improvement in students’ discipline and behavior referrals. We strongly believe that by capturing students’ interests and personalizing their learning experience, all students, regardless of race or economics, will have the chance to reach their full potential.
—Larry Caudill, principal of Lexington Traditional Magnet School
The fastest way to higher test scores has been the opening of high-quality charter schools in a community. They start fresh and bring a proven model. Easier said than done, however, especially if a district is already facing declining enrollment. But if local leaders work closely with communities impacted by low-performing schools, give those families and community leaders access to performance data, take them on tours of high-performing charter models that might be interested in opening in Jefferson County, and give the families some decision-making power, they can help lead the way for calling for new strong schools.
But before bringing in any pre-baked solution, starting community conversations in the communities with the lowest-performing schools, sort of a ‘listening tour,’ also seems like an important step to take. What are the most important issues for these families? Better school outcomes are surely near the top, but sometimes other things are equally as important, like school safety (both bullying and safe routes to school), and doing something to tackle these things shows families you are listening.
The issue likely impacts student test scores already, and leaders can start to build trust and relationships with the community leaders who are going to be essential for making headway in the long game of improving test scores. Regardless of the new schools that may open or the attempts to turn schools around, there will be a need for community partners to help in this work. Poverty and trauma play a big part in student outcomes.
—Christine Campbell, policy director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education
A great mystery in the achievement gaps discussion is how a most-effective program for educating disadvantaged students gets ignored. Many Kentuckians have never even heard of it. Direct instruction first proved most effective with disadvantaged students in the Lyndon Johnson era. Recently, a new study shows DI still continues to perform well for these students.
The National Institute for Direct Instruction says: ‘Direct Instruction (DI) is a model for teaching that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks.’
Kentucky’s educators never talk about DI, which makes teachers a ‘Sage on the Stage.’ It’s time to change that.
—Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solution
A world-class education for each public-school student in Jefferson County must, first and foremost, be everybody’s business. From the district superintendent, teachers and students to citizen, business and philanthropic leaders – everybody must come to the table with a solutions-focused mindset to help JCPS be the best it can be. We believe there are six essential ingredients necessary to close achievement gaps and allow each student the opportunity to achieve proficiency and beyond: bold leadership, accountability for results, attention to school, climate, strong instruction and a supportive community with high expectations, and a commitment to sustainability.
Raising achievement for each and every learner will not happen overnight, but it can happen in a continuous and sustained way if the community owns its truth, works collaboratively within schools and within the district to ensure nothing less than high expectations and adequate support for each student, and they commit a watchful eye to ensure measured progress with a sense of urgency.
—Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
The achievement gap can be remedied when several key factors are put in place. A big one is creating a strong link between home, school and community, helping families understand what they can do to teach their children at home before they enter school and as they progress through school.
Another effective one is to provide plenty of supplemental support in early grades (pre-K, kindergarten and first grade) so that children can receive solid additional instruction, so that the gap lessens early on their educational career.
Finally, teachers need the best support, professional development, time and resources to ensure that they are comfortable and competent in their craft, and their students receive the best instruction possible to succeed.
—Kathryn Starke, urban literacy specialist