Eliminating Achievement Gaps in England


Imagine that the U.S. government released a report showing that the achievement gap between White students and African American and Hispanic children had been eliminated. (In fact, the gap has hardly budged since 1980.) Such a report would cause dancing in the streets, champagne all around, and a genuine sense of a job well done.

Just such a report was released, but in England, not the U.S. In that country, longstanding achievement gaps have been greatly diminished or eliminated, according to Ofsted, an independent government agency that manages school inspectors. As recently as 2007, White English students far outscored those who were Black African, Afro-Carribean, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi. Today, all of these gaps have disappeared, or are now very small, in reading and math. The result is that instead of worrying about the achievement gap, the English are worrying about the perceived low performance of White students. However, in actuality, White students also made gains over the same period, just not as much as minorities.

How did the English accomplish this feat of closing the achievement gap, and what can we learn from their efforts in the U.S.? Such a large shift may have many causes, but the Ofsted report gives the main credit to a massive investment made by the previous Labor government called the London Challenge. This initiative provided substantial professional development and assistance to high-poverty schools throughout the London metropolitan area. A Manchester Challenge did the same in that city. Since most minority students in England live in London or Manchester, this appears to have been enough to affect reading and math gaps in the entire country.

England is very similar to the U.S. in most ways. It has similar income per capita, and its overall scores on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS are similar to ours. However, some aspects of the English context may not transfer to the U.S. For example, the proportion of students in England who are minorities is just 7%, compared to 30% in the U.S. A key structural difference is that although there are districts (local authorities) in England, they are very weak. Principals (head teachers) and boards of governors for each school have great autonomy, but the national government plays a much stronger role than in the U.S. What this means is that if the national government decides to intervene to improve schools, they can do so, and this is what happened in the London and Manchester Challenges. Also, basic per-pupil funding in the UK is equalized, as it is in all civilized countries, and in fact schools with many poor or minority students get extra funding. This contrasts with the situation in the U.S., where funding is largely dependent on local or state tax receipts, so poor areas receive much less than rich ones. A London or Manchester Challenge therefore builds on a level playing field, while in the U.S., just getting to equality would be a major accomplishment.

The most important lesson from the English example is this: achievement gaps are not inexorable. Substantial investment and concerted effort can make a meaningful difference. The English example does not provide a simple road map for the U.S., but it should remove a lot of excuses for the persistence of gaps in academic achievement in our country.

Summer: The Missing Link in Education Reform

By Gary Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Research has long documented the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Over the three-month summer vacation, children forget some of what they have learned during the previous school year. It’s an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the ideal of a lazy, fun-filled summer.

Most youth lose about two months in grade equivalents in math computational skills over the summer. Low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-income peers make slight gains.

Worse, these losses are cumulative, contributing to a widening achievement gap. A study by Johns Hopkins University’s Karl Alexander found that summer learning loss in the elementary school years results in low-income students being as much as 2.5 years behind their higher-income peers by the end of 5th grade. It also leads to placement in less rigorous high school courses, higher high school dropout rates, and lower college attendance. Further, when students lose hard-won skills over the summer, teachers waste time re-teaching at the beginning of every school year.

The learning losses, and the wasted time, are preventable.

There is evidence that students who attend high-quality summer programs can avoid summer losses, but what makes a high-quality program? Not surprisingly, such programs offer strong, individualized instruction, have parents who are involved, and feature small class sizes and engaging activities, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2011 report Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. They’re typically full-day programs that run from five to six weeks.

There are examples of successful summer learning programs in school districts and communities throughout the country. These high-quality programs effectively blend academics and enrichment activities to help students avoid learning losses, and even experience gains. These have nothing in common with the punitive summer schools I recall from my childhood. Rather, this new vision for summer school has kids reading in the morning and visiting museums in the afternoon. Math lessons are followed by art and music – subjects often squeezed out of the strained school day.

Outcomes are impressive. As part of the Smarter Summers initiative the National Summer Learning Association launched in 10 cities last year with support from the Walmart Foundation, middle school students attending Summer Advantage USA in Chicago and Indianapolis gained an average of 2.1 months in grade equivalents in literacy and math skills.

In Oakland, Calif., more than half of 1,000 elementary students who attended a summer program were found by the district to be performing at or above the benchmark in English/language arts scores after the program, compared with 36 percent in the spring. In Baltimore’s expanded summer learning program, elementary school students registered double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests from spring to fall 2010. Recently, Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso said that summer school is no longer just for children who are failing, but an important part of his strategy for helping all students to succeed.

Research is now underway on wide scale implementation and on sustained gains. The reality is that if we ever hope to close the persistent academic achievement gap, districts need to consider summer learning as part of their school improvement strategies. Summer school shouldn’t be seen as punitive, and shouldn’t be the first sacrifice in a tight budget year. It’s a link in the chain that’s been broken for far too long.

What We Can and Cannot Learn From International Comparisons

In education reform circles, people often express deep concerns about the mediocre performance of American students on international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS. There is good reason to be concerned that U.S. students score behind peer nations such as Finland, Netherlands, and Canada, and the international comparisons do provide a useful benchmark to tell us how our students are doing overall. However, while we can learn from the practices of other countries with high scores, we also need to maintain perspective.

First, there is great variation within our own country; representative samples of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota were given the PISA test, for example, and scored near the top, above most countries on most scales. Do these findings indicate that we should be studying Massachusetts and Minnesota as others are studying high-scoring Finland? Perhaps, but again, we should not get our knickers in a twist. Each of these states and countries has very different social and political contexts, and it is impossible to know which particular policy or practice contributes to the outcomes.

For example, a striking observation about Finland is that teachers are very highly respected there and only top students go into teaching. The teachers are not paid all that well, but for whatever reason, teaching is deeply valued. That’s useful to know, but is it the main reason Finns do so well? Perhaps it’s the long, cold winters with nothing else to do, the saunas, the completely phonetic language, the flatbread, the smoked fish. Who can say? And if the status of teachers were the key, what would we have to do in the US to get the top university graduates to go into teaching?

International comparisons are intriguing, but never tell us what to do. American students will start outperforming Finnish ones when we start implementing more effective programs and practices, proven in research in our schools. We may get good ideas from other countries worth testing out in U.S. schools, but we cannot assume that because a given high-scoring country uses a particular practice, that practice is what causes their high scores or is good for us.

NAEP Scores Flat, Sun Rises Again

Yesterday’s release of the NAEP scores revealed that, as a nation, we have made little progress in the past 20 years in helping our 4th graders read on grade level. Now, writing about flat NAEP scores is like writing about the sun rising. There is nothing new or exciting about this news. We can predict the cycles of the sun, plan for it, react to it, but we cannot impact whether the sun will rise every day. We can impact reading outcomes for 4th graders, as a nation, we have so far failed to do so.

Recent research from Don Hernandez shows that for students not reading on grade level by 3rd grade, one in six did not graduate from high school on time. This rate is four times greater than that for proficient readers. If this doesn’t sound an alarm, I don’t know what will. Reading well is a fundamental necessity for learning in all other subjects from math to history, even art. Children who are not reading on grade level simply cannot reach their full potential in any other subject. Economically, this leads to immeasurable loss in untapped potential of our future workforce.

Instead of the “keep on keepin’ on” mentality that has yielded predictably flat results for two decades, it is time to do something dramatically different in reading instruction: Use what works.

There are pockets of success across the country, and four states –Arizona, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania have even made progress in closing gaps between low and high income 4th grade students in the past eight years. It is time we focus intensely on scaling up evidence-based successful practices. Our kids deserve, and our economy needs, a laser focus on changing these sadly predictable outcomes.

A Commitment to Research Yields Improvements in Charter Network

Note: This is a guest post by Richard Barth, CEO and President of the KIPP FoundationMathematica
In his inaugural post for this blog, Robert Slavin wrote, “We did not manage our way to the moon, we invented our way to the moon.” I hear echoes of this statement throughout my work. Like other national charter school leaders, I am committed to making sure innovation can blossom and spread, throughout our own network and public schools nationwide.

But along with innovation we must insist on research and results. Across the 31 KIPP regions nationally, for example, we give schools autonomy to innovate as they see fit, as long as they can demonstrate that they are producing results for our students.

So how does a charter network like ours make sure schools are producing results? Not only do we assess our own schools on a regular basis, with publications like our yearly Report Card, but we also make a practice of inviting independent researchers to evaluate our results.

By building a solid body of evidence for what works–including independent reports about student achievement in our schools–we are able to set and maintain a high bar for achievement in our schools. The evidence then helps us build on what is working and to make adjustments where the
research has identified areas where we need to improve. For example, a study by Mathematica found that KIPP middle schools students make statistically significant gains in math and reading, even though students enter KIPP with lower average test scores than their neighboring peers in district schools. The same Mathematica report also found that KIPP schools are serving fewer special-education and Limited English Proficient (LEP), students than the average for neighboring district schools. This is a challenge for many charter schools and something we are making a priority throughout our network. So where we find we are doing well in both numbers of students served and their results -like the KIPP Academy Lynn near Boston, Mass., which is highlighted in a 2010 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research–we have an opportunity to zero in on what’s working and spread this news to our network and charter schools nationwide.

As more of our students move on to college, research can also help us keep tabs on how they are faring. We are just starting to examine the college completion rates of our students. In April we released our first-ever College Completion Report, which looked at the college graduation rates of KIPP’s earliest graduates from the mid-1990’s. Thirty-three percent of these KIPP students had finished college by their mid-twenties which is above the national average and four times the rate of their peers from low-income communities. This is far short of our goal of 75 percent, which is the average college completion rate for kids from affluent families.

By sharing these results we hope to encourage a national dialogue about how to improve college completion rates in America, especially among low income students. But we need school districts and charter school to start publicly reporting college completion rates fully–including those of eighth grade graduates, not just high school graduates or college freshmen, a practice that fails to give us a true picture.

This process of improvement is hard work; there’s no question. But by committing to research and accountability, we can set off a more vigorous and transparent conversation among public educators across the country about what we need to do to ensure success for all of our schools and students.


-Richard Barth

KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools. There are currently 109 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 32,000 students.

What Would Evidence-Based Policy Look Like in Education?

Note: Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, writes this guest post.

Is evidence-based policy an oxymoron? Is it possible to have evidence serve as a guide rather than merely as a justification for policy? I think there are two ways in which evidence can play a key role in school improvement.

The first is that evidence can help us identify high-leverage problems that create policy priorities. These are problems that, if solved, would reduce a large percentage of the variance between good and bad outcomes for kids. In 2004, for example, Paul Barton suggested a list of 14 factors correlated to high student achievement, including out-of-school factors such as hunger and nutrition, reading to children, and student mobility. He also listed in-school factors such as teacher quality, rigor of curriculum, and school safety. Barton noted that low-income and minority children are at a disadvantage in most of these areas.

Evidence-based policy would dictate that we concentrate on these, or other similar high-leverage conditions, to improve education–particularly for our most disadvantaged students. Imagine if instead of spending billions of dollars over the next 10 years on a thousand different efforts we concentrated policy on making sure that students master reading early, have successful transitions from middle to high school, and stay in school at least through high school graduation. After all, evidence from a 2010 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation points to the “make or break” nature of mastering reading by grade 3 for children’s future educational development; ACT provides evidence that the level of academic achievement attained by eighth-grade students “has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate than anything that happens academically in high school;” and the Everyone Graduates Center describes the devastating consequences that dropping out of high school has on both individuals and society.

Second, evidence-based policymakers can also insist that we judge proposed solutions to high-leverage problems against proof that they can get the job done. Let’s say we are talking about the goal of having all students reading by grade 3. Policymakers should not care whether it is charters, vouchers, homeschooling, non-union or unionized schools, reading programs, or professional development that achieves the desired goal. They should only care about demonstrated results. I agree with Rick Hess when he argues that, “The proper measure of whether proposals are consistent with public schooling ought not be whether power, politics, or finances shift, but whether we are doing a better job of educating all children so they master essential knowledge and skills, develop their gifts, and are prepared for the duties of citizenship.”

I was struck several years ago while reading “Polio: An American Story” how, led by science and the commitments of policy leaders, our entire nation was mobilized in a multi-decade effort to eradicate the dreaded disease. Even Lucy and Desi and other celebrities of the 1950s were engaged in the cause. Today, by combining science and policy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has extended the fight against polio around the world. Imagine if evidence-based policy could similarly mobilize our entire nation to accomplish a few critical educational outcomes: all children reading by grade 3, successful transitions to high school, and significant reductions in dropout rates. What would our education system look like then?
Steve Fleischman
Education Northwest (educationnorthwest.org), a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.

Research and Innovation: The Way Forward in Education

Fifty-four years ago, America was galvanized when the Soviet Union put a satellite into space. We responded as we always do when we have a national consensus on an important goal: We innovated. We invested heavily not only in rockets, but also in education, to prepare our entire nation to be second to none. I’m old enough to remember how exciting it was to feel a part of the national response to Sputnik. We knew that America would regain its leadership, and it was all up to us kids!

In education today, we wait in vain for the “Sputnik moment,” the time when our leaders decide that falling behind our international peers in academic achievement is no longer acceptable. Instead of investing in research and innovation, as we did in the wake of Sputnik, our leaders today try to solve our educational problems by fiddling with management solutions, governance solutions, and assessment solutions that do not fundamentally change what happens between teachers and students. These policies may be beneficial, but they don’t scare the Finns or the Chinese or even the Canadians who outperform our students. The reason it was Neil Armstrong and not Nikolai Armstronganoff who landed on the moon was that we invested in targeted, relentless research and development. We did not manage our way to the moon, we invented our way to the moon. Dramatic improvements in medicine, agriculture, and technology happened the same way. And so it must be in education.

Sputnik: Advancing Education through Innovation and Evidence is a new blog dedicated to disseminating news and information on research and development in education that could transform teaching and improve student outcomes on a scale that matters. In addition to reporting on research itself, it will focus on policy developments relevant to research and innovation in education. Guest bloggers will present their perspectives on how research and innovation can play a greater role in policy and practice.

This is an exciting time for those who share a belief in research and innovation as the way forward in education. I hope you’ll join me in exploring the outer limits of education reform.