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Monday, May 7, 2012

The Connecticut Achievement Gap

On Friday Southern recognized two very influential educational leaders who have shaped our understanding of the achievement gap. Dr. Edmund Gordon and Dr. James Comer.

(A video on Dr. Gordon discussing the achievement gap at a previous event)

(A previous  discussion of developmental science by Dr. Comer)

 It was a wonderful experience. The event was setup as a discussion between the two icons. More often than not they were in complete agreement but their nuanced differences deserve a closer examination.

The talk began with Dr. Gordon recognizing it had been fifty years since the Comer studies first examined the idea of the achievement gap. He said one of his biggest regrets is that we are still discussing the issue a half a century later.

On the Roots of the Gap

Both of the educators agreed that the achievement gap was more about opportunity than a deficit of skills. Gordon opened the discussion by reviewing the corollary studies that connect performance to skin color. Basically a series of studies have shown the darker the skin the lower the performance. Although he argued that the gap has more to do with access rather than skin color. Gordon also noted, however, that his friend W. EB. Du Bois would have challenged this notion and say we could never forget about skin color.

Gordon argued that the only way to overcome the gap is to give access to both economic access and power. He stated even knowing you have access to economic advantages gives a child power and that sense of agency in turn gives her access to economic advantages.  Gordon concluded that it will take revitalization of the community and economy in black neighborhoods to truly address the Connecticut achievement gap.

Dr. Comer began his discussion of the achievement gap by defining it as a development gap. Comer agreed the achievement gap does have something to do with color. He argued, however, it had more to do with history. Comer noted that we have a country built on the value of inequity and inequality. He noted that things happen in the past that are transmitted from generation to generation that impacted development in the future. He makes no bones about being a supporter of reparations. Not in the fortty acres and a mule sense but in society investing heavily in black neighborhoods.

Dr. Comer felt that it isn't about achievement but the opportunity to develop. Comer stated that students can overcome if they know who they are and can process out the noise. Socio-economic status isn't the only cause but we need to process out the noise and believe we can achieve. It is this, belief, Comer argued that privileged children enter school with  and minority students do not.

It is for this reason Comer stated he hated the term "integration"  Comer stated it should have been about opportunity. He defined opportunity as all the factors that influence achievement and integration as putting people together.

On the Role of Schools

The two speakers differed on their beliefs on the role of schools. Comer argued that it was the only central place where the needs of students could be met. Gordon was suspicious of the idea that schools could be the central focus of ending the achievement gap.

Dr. Comer believed that the gap had to be closed at school. It could not be done solely around the dinner table. He argued for staring early by focusing in on executive functioning in  preschool. Since Comer believed that the achievement gap was rooted in basic decision making at the earliest stages of development he believed schools had to create opportunities for students to make decisions and express agency and power. Gordon said, "Black youth need to be taught how to deal with a society not organized for blacks."

Dr. Gordon posited that there were severe limits on what the schools can do to overcome the achievement gap. Gordon stated there were three main reasons for his suspicion. First off he argued that so much of what happens in schools is predicated b what happens in the family before schooling begins. Second reform efforts in school are misguided. Finally, and most importantly, Gordon felt that disadvantaged youth need access to supplemental education beyond schools.

The two speakers also disagreed on the role of teachers in fighting the inherent bias in the world. Comber believed we had to reach teachers and recruit them in tackling bias. Gordon did not believe it was possible.

In what was the most memorable line of the talk Dr. Gordon exclaimed, "I gave up preaching because I realized preaching could not keep people from sinning." He went on and stated that we cannot overcome the bias that teachers bring to the classroom. Instead Dr. Gordon felt the youth of the classroom must be empowered to challenge their teachers and injustice in the classroom.

Finally the two scholars disagreed on the role of unions. Comer felt that unions had done some wonderful things in the past. Gordon, while recognizing a storied past felt unions had devolved into self serving and self preservationist institutions.

On the Role of Testing

Both speakers not only argued against our current accountability driven education reform frenzy but were both highly suspicious of the overall motives.

Dr. Gordon, an assessment expert, stated he was penning a letter to President Obama attacking the current focus on testing. He said the focus on using tests to reform schools is simply wrong. Dr. Gordon was more forthright in his disdain for testing. He felt that the goal was to simply show that schools are failing. This in turn would garner public disgust. At that point the test scores could be used to dismantle the public education system.

Dr. Comer felt the tests were just telling us something we already know. There is an achievement gap. We are spending hundreds f millions of dollars to come to a forgone conclusion. He worried about this emphasis trickling down into early childhood education. Dr. Comer felt that the tests actually contribute to the achievement gap by stripping away all the joy in education for minority students. Well off students do not need the focus on raising scores so they can concentrate on joy of learning. Comer felt that the tests rob poor students of this opportunity.

On the Role of Schools of Education

There was slight disagreement on how schools of education should be organized. Dr. Comer felt that the schools should focus on the science of learning. Naturally he felt a strong affinity for teaching developmental science. Dr. Comer felt there was a lot schools of education could gain from the medical model.

Dr. Gordon retorted it wasn't really the advances in medicine as a science that lead to improved health care but more public health policy. It was sanitization and immunization efforts that transformed society. He felt schools were the same way. It had to be a community effort and not simply science. Dr. Gordon said it wasn't the pedagogical science that mattered for pre-service teachers but their ability to think. He said their content majors were more important as teachers needed to "know something." Dr. Gordon argued for harder admissions criteria and more or a liberal education focus for teachers.

Overall the day was quite an experience. It ended with a panel of teachers, principals, and students reflecting on how best Connecticut and New Haven could overcome the achievement gap.

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