Recently the state of Michigan declared a number of schools to be “Focus Schools”. These are the 10% of schools with the widest achievement gaps between the top 30% and the bottom 30%. These achievement gaps are not necessarily gaps between white and minority students or high-income and low-income students, but between high achievers and struggling students. While more students struggling widens the achievement gap, so does having more high achievers or having high achievers who are wildly successful. The state has created a perverse incentive for many schools to clip the wings of students who would soar.
Achievement gaps between the top 30% and the bottom 30% are natural. Just like in athletics, not everyone in academics has the same ability. Sports teams and the classroom exhibit some of the same dynamics, but are often treated very differently.
On a sports team, there are athletes who have great natural ability and those whose ability is below average. There are athletes who join having played since they could toddle and ones from nonathletic homes. Some have advantages of a healthy diet at home, gym memberships, parents who support them, or neighborhoods that encourage sports. Others do not have those edges and often lag because of that. The coach’s job is to help each one improve, from the clumsy bench-warmer to the star athlete. The emphasis is on improvement, not how close in talent the athletes are. The coach recognizes that each athlete has an individual starting point, growth curve, and support system.
Just like athletes, students are not widgets. Some learn quickly and others need more time. Some enter knowing how to read and others not recognizing letters. There are students who get great sleep, healthy food, help from parents, and are encouraged in their studies by friends and neighbors. And there are students who come from disrupted homes, have poor diets and sleep habits, have parents who can’t or don’t help them, and neighborhoods that despise academic achievement. Each student also has an individual starting point, growth curve, and support system. However, our current school practices – often due to legislation – are focused on sameness instead of growth.
Our state government has begun moving from a system of grade-level benchmarks to a system based on growth and varied learning styles. Most of the MEAP and MME, which measure if a student knows the material for his grade level, are being replaced by Smarter Balanced, which will also provide a student’s academic level in each subject whether he is ahead or behind. A current fourth grade student who moved from an early second grade proficiency to midyear third grade proficiency over the last year would still be behind according to the MEAP, but Smarter Balanced would also show he succeeded in achieving over a year’s worth of growth.
Governor Snyder has also initiated moving to “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” learning. This recognizes that students learn at different paces and via difference methods. The emphasis is on each student growing and achieving at least a full year’s growth, not simply meeting benchmarks.
Unfortunately, the current implementation of Focus Schools is a throwback to the old way of thinking about proficiency and student success. It doesn’t measure growth or take into consideration each student’s starting point or support system. It doesn’t account for schools with diverse populations where some students have significant home-based advantages over others. Its mechanism does not show if low achieving students are still succeeding compared to similar students at other schools.
By pitting the bottom 30% against the top 30%, schools on the Focus Schools list that have supported all students are being pressured to increase services to the bottom 30% at the expense of the top 30%. Some schools have let gifted students soar and are on the Focus Schools list because the top end is so high. They may have to cut the programs that educate gifted learners at their academic level to fund more programs for struggling students. Other schools with disparate populations may be on the list due to home environments. Options for those schools include shifting resources from students whose parents are most supportive of education or redistricting to decrease diversity in schools. The remedies for many schools go against the individualized growth sought through “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” learning.
Let’s examine three possible schools. These are examples and not based on data from the schools, much of which is unavailable to the general public.
School A has 25% of its bottom 30% proficient and 50% of its top 30% proficient, for an achievement gap of 25 percentile points.
School B has 65% of its bottom 30% proficient and 90% of its top 30% proficient, for an achievement gap of 25 percentile points.
School C has 65% of its bottom 30% proficient and 100% of its top 30% proficient, for an achievement gap of 35 percentile points.
After the state runs its calculations, it declares all schools with achievement gaps over 30 percentile points to be Focus Schools. As stated previously, Focus Schools is solely about achievement gaps between the top 30% and bottom 30%.
School A hasn’t done a great job of educating its students and has low scores, but its achievement gap is smaller than the cutoff, so it is not a Focus School.
School B has placed the vast majority of its resources into struggling students. It has great numbers and a smaller achievement gap than the cutoff. It is not a Focus School. In fact, it is a Reward School for being in the top 5% of all schools.
School C has helped each student grow by assigning resources to gifted students too and using methods that improve growth for every student, such as ability grouping and cluster grouping. Its numbers are equal to School B for struggling students and higher for top achievers. It is also in the top 5% of all schools, but its achievement gap is higher than the cutoff, so it is a Focus School. It is required to come up with a plan to better serve the needs of its bottom 30%.
School C has been successful in educating its bottom 30%. It has also been more successful than most schools at educating its top 30% and now is being penalized for that. In a few years, when the state switches to Smarter Balanced, this situation could become even worse. Schools that do not throttle growth to a single year for top students but let them succeed at their natural quick pace will have even larger achievement gaps.
The achievement gap is a real issue that needs to be addressed, often through means such as increasing parent education and involvement and varying learning styles for struggling students. Unfortunately, the clumsy brush the Michigan Department of Education used to determine Focus Schools tars successful schools along with failing schools. Before you make a hasty decision based on this designation, explore why your school is a Focus School. It may be because it is too successful.
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