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Closing achievement gaps in diverse and low-poverty schools

Education leaders in North Carolina and across the U.S. have spent decades highlighting and attempting to close achievement gaps, focused especially on the gaps between African-American and Latino students compared to their white and Asian peers, as well as the gaps between low-income students and others.

Many reformers have focused on the lagging results for students in extremely high-poverty schools—those with more than 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

But that focus can overlook the struggles in wealthier areas: 55 percent of African-American students and 54 percent of Latino students attend schools with low or moderate poverty rates. In these more economically and racially diverse schools, students of color and low-income students fare better than in high-poverty schools—but they still face large achievement gaps. Stanford research shows that some of the nation’s widest gaps exist in low-poverty, diverse districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina and Berkeley Unified School District in California.

To close achievement gaps in these diverse settings, education leaders must adopt more complete approaches to outstanding learning for all, secure and healthy learners, and a culture of equity within schools.

A shortfall in any of these three areas within a school magnifies the impact of unequal access to resources—educational, personal, and sociopolitical—outside of school.

Those are the big conclusions in a new report commissioned by Oak Foundation, Closing Achievement Gaps in Diverse Schools: An Action Guide for District Leaders, by our organization, Public Impact, whose offices are located in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. The report examines the research and formulates a fresh, complete package of approaches to closing achievement gaps in diverse schools. Public Impact has long had a focus on high-poverty schools, and will continue to. But given these statistics, Public Impact has added “excellent diverse schools” to its list of high-priority strategies, to understand how to achieve excellence with all students in these settings.

For this report, Public Impact reviewed more than 150 studies conducted over the past 10 years, focusing on ones with a quantitative analysis of impact on students. The evidence suggests that solutions require tackling the instructional, emotional, and practical needs of students, their families, and the educators who serve them. Importantly, we examined approaches that had evidence of boosting outcomes for disadvantaged students without reducing availability of advanced instruction, for two reasons. First, when all students have help to leap ahead, all will need what schools today consider “advanced” instruction. Second, schools that serve all students well, regardless of background, build strong family and community support for and commitment to public education.

Districts serious about closing achievement gaps in diverse schools need an approach that includes both what strategies to pursue and the process for putting those strategies into action.

Districts can pursue a comprehensive set of strategies shown by research to help close achievement gaps, centered on three complementary goals: 

Outstanding learning for all

  • Guaranteeing excellent teachers and principals, including redesigning schools to enable the district’s excellent teachers and principals to reach all students, not just a fraction.
  • Ensuring access to high-standards materials and learning opportunities.
  • Using teaching methods and school practices that work, including screening for and addressing learning differences, personalizing instruction, and responding to trauma.

Secure and healthy learners

  • Meeting basic needs, including meals and reducing school transitions from housing changes.
  • Fostering wellness and joy via school-based health clinics, social-emotional learning, and other building blocks of academic success, and addressing mental health challenges.
  • Supporting families by understanding and responding to individual and collective needs.

Culture of equity

  • Addressing key equity challenges in schools, including teachers matching their students’ racial and other identities, access to advanced opportunities, culturally relevant assignments, and research-based, non-discriminatory disciplinary policies.
  • Fostering community accountability via shared leadership that truly empowers.
  • Equipping individuals to act by developing leadership and addressing implicit bias via consistent, ongoing anti-bias training.

Districts must use a process that ensures commitment and action by all

  • Commit publicly to closing gaps and achieving equity, with clear, measurable goals
  • Engage communities actively in the effort, including families and students
  • Act on commitments by assigning responsibility and resources, setting clear timelines, and monitoring and adjusting to stay on track
  • Embrace accountability for progress, both through internal systems and via public scrutiny

If district leaders and their communities pursue these approaches, they can help low-income students and students of color succeed academically and thrive personally in large numbers—and build widespread family and community support for public schools.

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel are the co-directors of Public Impact and founders of the Opportunity Culture initiative.