As I get closer to the end of my doctoral studies, I am left feeling both hopeless about the future of a consistently successful school reform model while at the same time feeling more informed about the realities of an opportunity gap that exists in our country. We have spent the last three years immersed in conversations about school reform and the achievement gap that has supposedly been plaguing many of our schools, especially those found in urban areas. What I have come to believe and understand over the course of the last few months is that issues plaguing our schools go way beyond an achievement gap and are actually rooted in the opportunity gap that has permeated our society and is perpetuated within the confines of our schools. Our emphasis has become so singularly focused on addressing the achievement gap that we have lost sight of the whole child and the opportunity gap that potentially faces our children before they attend formal schooling and after they graduate high school. It is my belief that our nation is filled with the “haves” and “have-nots,” which are at the root of the opportunity gap, and our schools continue to sort individuals into these two categories regardless of whether they are attending a public school, independent school or charter school.
From the release of A Nation At Risk over twenty years ago to the roll out of the Common Core State Standards about four years ago to the emphasis on educator effectiveness over the last two years, the discussions in most school districts have been focused on accountability in an effort to close the achievement gap and give all children access to highly effective educators and schools. We have come to believe that our schools are not effectively preparing our children for college and careers beyond school and thus school reform has been anointed as the highest priority.
Unfortunately, what we know through extensive research is that no one approach to school reform has been proven to work consistently nor has one been successfully replicated in different contexts. Let’s consider charter schools and their impact on the school reform movement over the last twenty years. Curto et. al. (2011) argue that certain charter school models, such as KIPP and Harlem Children Zone Promise Academy, are indicative of the fact that a “high quality” school is enough to potentially transform the state of poverty and racial inequality in the United States. The review argues that a high quality school alone offers higher social returns than community-based interventions because students in these “high quality” charter schools are showing slight academic gains, especially in the area of mathematics, over their counterparts in public schools.
Reading this review of data in isolation could easily sway private funders and urban communities to believe that opening a “high quality” charter school will solve many of their problems and successfully close the achievement gap. From my perspective, those beliefs would be wrong! First off, we know that reviews such as this one, where the focus is on a small number of schools and students, spotlight data that may not be trustworthy and cannot be easily generalized (Hill, et. al., 2006). Curto et. al. focused their review on the research of others (in Boston and New York) and then zeroed in on a small number of charter schools from within those studies but in the end, didn’t accurately reflect all the information we know about these specific schools. For example, using the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy as an example of a “high quality” school and not emphasize all the wrap around services they provide their students and the surrounding community paints an incomplete picture. In fact, if anything, HCZ is a strong example of the idea that it does take a village to educate a child, which is the opposite argument this study was presenting. Furthermore, what we know about charter schools through several other studies (Bracey, 2005; Zimmer et. al, 2003; and Miron & Nelson, 2001) is that their results are mixed at best. In some cases they perform better than local public schools while in many other cases they perform at the same rates or worse than similar non-charter schools. Finally, when considering the Curto et. al. review we see that there is evidence suggesting that some charter schools are struggling to get their students through college, even though they may have closed the achievement gap during the elementary and middle school years. This struggle, post charter school, speaks to the opportunity gap that negatively impacts the “have-nots” in our society because although charter schools can control many variables while the children are in their buildings, they cannot effectively control what happens after children graduate.
In addition to the mixed data we have about the success of charter schools, which many would argue are the silver bullet in current school reform movement, we also know that some charters employ strategies and techniques that have not been proven to have long-lasting positive impacts on students, their performance or the surrounding communities. For example, there are charter schools that employ educators, in both teaching and leadership positions, who are products of the Teach For America program, which in itself has been a focal point of the school reform movement. Many of the educators who have been trained through the Teach For America program and end up in leadership positions would argue that improving schools and closing the achievement gap can be handled by charismatic leaders through mostly managerial solutions where they hold teachers accountable (Trujillo & Scott, 2013). Trujillo & Scott (2013) point out that TFAers who assume leadership positions rarely focus on the social and political inequalities impacting the school; these leaders also devote little time to collaborating with the community and the children’s socio-emotional needs are not a priority. The focus in spaces led by these educators is test scores, which they see as the primary way to close the achievement gap while all the while ignoring the opportunity gap. If these leaders would dedicate time to connecting with both their students and the communities at large, I would argue that they would better understand the issues impacting the children and their families and they would appreciate that test scores are only one tiny piece of the puzzle in trying to address both the achievement and opportunity gaps.
Regrettably, there are some important voices missing from the school reform movement conversation – the voices of students and their families. The lack of emphasis on student voice and engaging the families and community is a theme that runs through many of the readings we have encountered during this course. Whether it was the reform movement in Philadelphia where all decisions were made behind closed doors and community input was minimal, if any, or the PSCI movement in Los Angeles where families and the surrounding community were often confused as to the goals of this initiative (Marsh et. al, 2012), the common thread is the lack of community voice and engagement as it relates to school reform. The silence doesn’t end there though because the voices of the students are also rarely heard in the school reform movement. In some charter schools, students are expected to have little or no say in their educational experiences and little choice in how learning unfolds within the context of school (Goodman, 2013). This lack of student voice and disapproval on the part of the adults for much of what students may want to express could be contributing to an diminished sense of self, which could have detrimental long term affects and could further contribute to the opportunity gap. Research shows that increasing student voice within the context of school can actually serve as a catalyst to improve teaching, learning, the curriculum and the relationships between teachers and students (Soo Hoo, 1993). Why would student voice and increased community engagement not be a focal point in the school reform movement when we know that these voices not only inform our practices but may also transform them? Our children and their families have a strong sense of self, the community and the school and by giving them a voice in the school reform movement, we may not only expand our approaches to addressing the achievement gap but we may also start understanding the opportunity gap, which is THE gap we need to close if we want to make progress as a nation.