Written by Elinor Aspegren
During a live call-in cable TV show that aired Wed., Oct. 8, Dr. McGee announced the creation of a minority achievement advisory committee. The committee, comprised of community members, faculty, students and parents, will produce a set of recommendations to help close the district’s achievement gap. The achievement gap is a divide between the performance of certain groups of students. McGee plans to hold the advisory committee beginning Nov. 4.
McGee hopes to achieve two goals by closing the achievement gap. “One is to ensure that every student here fulfills his or her enormous creative, intellectual and social potential,” McGee said. “The second is really to make sure that students of color and from socially disadvantaged families have access to services that help them promote their talents.” The 2012-13 Student Accountability Report Card Percentage Proficiency shows how badly Palo Alto Unified School District needs this. In High School English, 90% of both Asian and Caucasian students are proficient. 59 percent of African American students and 53 percent of Latino students are proficient. 88 percent of Asian students, 71 percent of Caucasian students, 24 percent of African American students, and 42 percent of Latino students are proficient in Math.
According to McGee, the district needs to utilize the human and financial resources it has to insure that all students receive a high quality education. “We just have a long history of needing to provide more academic and social-emotional support for students of color and for the socially and economic disadvantaged,” he said, adding that other districts can learn from the systemic approach he plans to take. Board member Melissa Baten Caswell believes that it is PAUSD’s duty to close the gap. “The purpose of public education is to provide everyone an equal chance to be educated, and I don’t think we are doing our job as well as we would like to be, when specific ethnic and economic groups of students are performing measurably worse than their peers.” she said.
Co-Chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), Kim Bomar, believes that the problem in the district is the lack of help for disadvantaged and minority students. During her time in PASS, she has noticed that few minority students have met the A-G requirements to graduate. “We need to figure out what students can do to be welcomed at schools and be viewed as strong leaders,” she said. “McGee recognizes that we need not just increase performance, but also make sure that everyone is represented in high level classes.”
The advisory committee will examine enrollment in classes and grades amongst other PAUSD data points and conduct background research on schools outside of PAUSD that have successfully closed the achievement gap. “Once they have all of this information, the idea is that they will put together a list of strategic short term and long term recommendations that will be actionable,” he said.
In terms of the school board and PASS, they will help to aid this process while providing their own suggestions. Baten Caswell suggests that the advisory looks at current school programs. “One of the things that I’m hoping this task force will do is look at internal and external data from programs that seem to be successful here and make recommendations about how best to evaluate and make choices about programs going forward.” she said. PASS intends to advocate for McGee’s recommendations and fill in the missing action items. “We hope to have a PASS representative on the committee,” Bomar said.
McGee anticipates several obstacles during this project. He believes that the biggest problem will be the prevailing but erroneous mentality that all students are doing well in school. He expects it will be difficult to sustain the achievement gap initiative over several years. “This is going to take time,” he said.
According to McGee, parent and peer pressure is the major social barrier to fixing the gap. “This isn’t just a problem between eight and three,” he said. Bomar added that another problem is the current Palo Alto culture of high-achievement. “There might be advisory recommendations that conflict with the culture of this community,” she said. Baten Caswell, on the other hand, sees an issue with the obtainment of information.”Our history has been that we continue to add new programs, but we rarely are able to make objective make tradeoff decisions once they start ,” she said. “Part of the reason for that is because we have not been consistent about setting up clear metrics for evaluation; as a result we don’t have clear data about whether those programs are helping or not helping.”
There are several end goals for this project. McGee hopes that school will not only be a place for students to attend, but also a place of active and engaged learning. Bomar believes that the number one goal is to ensure that students feel welcome. “I hope that the end goal will be that all kids will come to feel at home at school and in the community, and confident in themselves as learners,” she said.
Baten Caswell hopes that the board will provide evidence for programs that work. “If there is a well put together plan with good metrics associated with it, I don’t think we will have problems at the [school board] level,” she said. “I’d like to see results from our students that are strong, and are not statistically different when you break them out by ethnic group.” she said.
McGee brings a great deal of experience to this project; he has published papers on the achievement gap and developing talent in youth and was State Superintendent of Illinois for 3 years. “I really made this the key policy initiative of my administration,” he said. “We didn’t make the progress [I had hoped for], but we made some inroads and certainly inspired schools and districts to tackle the problem on their own.” He hopes to have more time here than he had in Illinois to meet and fulfill the needs of the students at the low end of the achievement gap.
McGee believes it may take five to seven years to complete this project.