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Op-Ed: The Achievement Gap Can't Be Bridged by Schools Alone

Everyone has a stake in helping economically disadvantaged students accelerate their learning until it's on par with their more affluent peers

Patrick J. Fletcher, superintendent, River Dell Regional School District, president, Bergen County Association of School Administrators

When it comes to assessing student performance, nothing bedevils educators, politicians, and parents more than the concept of an "achievement gap." It's equal parts frustrating, sad . . . and a bit confusing.

In simplest terms, an academic achievement gap is a significant separation between groups of students in terms of accomplishment. In other words, students of the same age or grade level who produce strikingly dissimilar results.

Throughout New Jersey, the overarching academic achievement gap is predominantly a socioeconomic creation, with the most striking gulf being between students from affluent communities and those in less privileged districts. Of course, young people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are neither less intelligent nor less motivated. Instead, the day-to-day circumstances of their lives add additional obstacles and challenges, while more affluent students are often buoyed by additional family and community resources.

It's a reality we'd assume everyone understands. But let's be completely clear -- for students in one of New Jersey's poorer areas, it's difficult to focus on academic excellence when you may . . . not be getting breakfast in the morning . . . not be able to get to school without dodging gang members . . .not hear English spoken in your home . . . not spend more than a few months in any one school because your family frequently moves . . . not have family members who can meet with teachers due to inflexible or irregular work schedules . . . not have Internet access at home.

Despite the obvious complexities, far too many individuals pondering this problem cast immediate blame on public schools, whether on a statewide or local level. But by viewing the problem so simplistically, these individuals completely miss the vital web of connectivity joining students not only to their schools, but also to their families, their communities, society at large, and so much more.

The truth is, there's only so much schools can do even to shrink the achievement gap -- because this gap is not and never was the sole responsibility of schools. We're just the point at which a symptom of a far greater problem becomes readily apparent. Certainly, new curriculum standards and more frequent standardized testing, along with mandated teacher and administrator evaluation systems, won't solve these complex social issues. They may, in fact, deflect focus from them.

Economic hardship, parenting challenges, the day-in, day-out environment in which students live, the state's unfunded mandates on individual public school districts -- these all played leading roles in creating the achievement gap. Now, they're pivotal in terms of maintaining it.

As the leaders of public school districts across New Jersey's most populous county, we members of the Bergen County Association of School Administrators spend huge amounts of time pondering steps that would be most effective in eliminating the achievement gap. And we've come up with three primary strategies:

  • Research consistently demonstrates that effective teachers have the greatest positive impact on student achievement. This being the case, it's vital to keep in mind that parents have the greatest influence on students' overall growth and learning. Parents must actively participate in the educational process, be positive role models, and support the goal of student achievement as true partners with local schools.

  • Funding that's strategically focused on helping children beyond school grounds can impact the overall gap. New Jersey's school districts provide assistance for children living in poverty, but steadily shrinking resources will eventually terminate these efforts. And the state-mandated two percent cap on annual school district budget expansion dramatically limits our ability to implement potent local solutions related to teaching and learning. Doing more with less will only go so far -- eventually, it will doom our entire system.

  • The state Department of Education is responsible for a steady stream of decrees and mandates. It now needs to establish sensible benchmarks to support student achievement -- without the threat of evaluation-based measures and still-untested assessments with unclear conclusions. Pilot programs must be shepherded from concept, to development, to implementation, and then evaluated for efficacy.

Overcoming New Jersey's academic achievement gap won't be easy. In fact, it will be quite difficult. But it can be done -- provided all those with a stake in the process stop pointing fingers and assessing blame and instead begin taking responsibility for their own actions.

The inclination in Trenton and elsewhere to view the achievement gap as a standard mathematic equation that can be solved by simple redirection of tax dollars is completely wrong. In reality, the achievement gap is far more like an extremely detailed recipe -- one that calls for the careful, consistent refining and improvement of many different ingredients.

Certainly, our public schools in Bergen County and around the state must address this problem, but the same holds true for parents, for the state Department of Education, and for our society as a whole. Everyone has a stake in helping economically disadvantaged students accelerate their learning until it's on par with their more affluent peers -- and it's everyone's responsibility. Our local school districts absolutely cannot solve the problem on their own, nor should they be expected to.

This op-ed is the work of multiple authors: Patrick J. Fletcher, superintendent, River Dell Regional School District, president, Bergen County Association of School Administrators; Dr. Adam Fried, superintendent, Harrington Park School District; Dr. C. Lauren Schoen, superintendent, Mahwah Township Public Schools; Michael Jordan, superintendent, Maywood Public Schools; Dr. Oliver Stringham, superintendent, North Arlington School District; Dr. Matthew Murphy, superintendent, Ramsey School District; Dr. Daniel Fishbein, superintendent, Ridgewood Public Schools; Lynn Trager, superintendent, Tenafly Public Schools

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