In the Academic and Think Tank World, Pondering Achievement-Gap Remedies Takes Center Stage

Article excerpt

Pursuit of quality education is civil rights struggle of today, scholars say

WASHINGTON

After 30 years of continuous research, widespread intervention and frustrating results, the prospects for closing the achievement gap between Black, Latino and White students remain viable, scholars concluded at a recent conference in Washington, D.C.

Analysis and remedies of the academic achievement gap, principally between Black and White students in grades K-12, took center stage at a conference rifled "Closing the Gap: Promising Strategies for Narrowing the Achievement Gap." The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, and the Edison Schools organization convened a notable group of scholars who presented ideas and research on strategies to boost the academic performance of underachieving minority students.

"We are not helpless when it comes to closing the racial gap in academic achievement," declared Dr. Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings.

Dr. Benno C. Schmidt Jr., Edison Schools' board chairman, characterized the pursuit of quality education as "the civil fights snuggle of today."

Unlike the fierce debate around school vouchers, which is expected to be part of the Bush administration's proposed reform of low-performing schools, the conference attracted scholars of varying positions but resulted with virtually no sharp policy disputes.

Instead, the conference proceeded with a spirit of optimism and confidence. A good part of the optimism came from the Edison Schools officials, who expressed their belief that meaningful reform in schools with high Black and Latino populations could significantly boost academic performance.

"Our experience is that racial and ethnic gaps can be solved," says Dr. John Chubb, chief education officer of Edison Schools.

While focusing on the broad topic of the achievement gap, the conference highlighted Edison Schools' emergence as a school system that claims to be successfully pushing Black and Latino students to meet high academic standards. The for-profit organization, which was founded in 1992, privately manages 113 schools across the nation, that remain part of public school systems. Many of the Edison Schools are public charter schools. Some 57,000 students, 70 percent of whom are Black and Latino, attend Edison Schools, according to Edison officials.

"We would be the 60th largest school district in the country. It makes sense for us to take a leadership role," says Chris Whittle, chief executive officer and president of Edison Schools.

Conference organizer Tom Loveless credited Edisons School officials for coming up with the conference idea and teaming with Brookings. "We wanted to focus on the solutions," Loveless says. The conference also included presentations from Edison Schools teachers and a principal.

In addition to the conference spotlighting the emergence of Edison Schools as a player in the achievement gap debate, the collaboration of Brookings and Edison showcased what organizers deemed as important school reform research for eliminating the racial/ethnic disparity in academic performance.

Among the key topics covered during the conference were research documenting the effect of class size on performance; the performance of students in private schools; and the role of federal resources in helping close the achievement gap.

SETTING THE TONE

Former Democratic congressman Floyd Flake of New York opened the conference with a keynote address that named low expectations on the pan of schools and educators as a major culprit in stunting the learning environment and achievement of Black students. Flake, who is an Edison Schools executive, cited other factors as well, including the pattern of Black students isolating themselves in integrated educational settings, and students' failure to get help. …