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Talking equality

District leaders highlight racial gaps - not just in test scores but also in opportunities.
  • students mix
    Photo: Harvey Finkle




In her first months as Philadelphia school superintendent, Arlene Ackerman has consistently emphasized how Black and Latino students, particularly males, continue to be at a severe disadvantage despite citywide student achievement gains over the past few years.

“All is not well with all of our children,” she told a gathering of principals and other administrators in August, in her introduction to many of them. “The future for far too many of our poor students of color who attend our public schools is up for grabs. For some, it is teetering precariously.”

“Unless those of us entrusted with their educational well-being take unprecedented actions on their behalf, they will not get a second chance,” she told the assembled leaders.

During the fall, she and her team have been planning what those “unprecedented actions” might be. In broad terms, she says she wants to more equitably allocate resources and hold adults more accountable. Neither of these politically charged promises has yet been fleshed out.

Ackerman is not the first Philadelphia school leader to focus on the so-called “achievement gap,” a national phenomenon in which the academic performance of Black and Latino students lags behind that of Whites and Asians. But she has made it the “context for urgency” and the rationale for leading the District in “a new direction.”

In one of her first School Reform Commission meetings her team made a blunt and sweeping statistical presentation that included, among other data:

  • Black and Latino students lag about 24 points behind Whites in proficiency rates for both reading and math on the PSSA and are even further behind Asians. The gap with Whites has narrowed only slightly since 2002.

  • Fifty-nine percent of the students in emotional support classes are African American boys, nearly double their rate in the general population. At 11 percent, Latino boys are also placed at a higher rate than their overall numbers.

  • White students make up just 12 percent of the high school students but 28 percent of those in magnet schools. African Americans, conversely, are overrepresented in discipline and alternative schools.

  • Just 11 percent of Black students and 10 percent of Latinos in high schools are in Advanced Placement classes, compared to 32 percent of Asians and 24 percent of Whites.

“What I’ve seen here are problems that are consistent in large school systems,” said Ackerman, who has led the San Francisco and Washington, DC districts and was a high official in Seattle. “[There’s a] lack of focus, a lack of coherent strategies that are integrated to better support students, teachers, and schools. And I see apathy in the larger community and a lack of integration of services from the city.”

The District has embarked on a short but extensive strategic planning process in which three of nine work teams will focus specifically on closing these gaps. The work groups, charged with probing “root causes,” will include parents, students, and community members as well as District insiders. The groups begin meeting in early December and will make final reports and recommendations by February.

In addition to the achievement gap, working groups will focus on college readiness, dropout prevention and recovery, recruiting and retaining topflight teachers and administrators, and interventions for failing schools and rewards for successful ones.

They will face familiar problems that have long defied solution: uneven distribution of experienced teachers, high dropout rates, continued climate problems especially in the big neighborhood high schools, and, as one student reminded the SRC on Nov. 19, the lack of textbooks to take home.

Black and Latino students are also disciplined at far higher rates than Whites and Asians. In 2007-08, the rate of suspensions per 100 students was 34 for African Americans, 25 for Latinos, 14 for Whites and 5 for Asians.

Student disengagement is rampant: in a recent survey of high school students, 40 percent of the more than 12,000 students who responded said they don’t have even one class in which the topics they are studying interest them.

At the other end of the learning continuum, programs for the youngest children – which can address causes of learning gaps before they have a chance to open up – are lagging behind demand. Despite a huge expansion of Head Start, that and other preschool programs are serving only a fraction of the eligible three- and four-year-olds in the city.

Ackerman said that she wants better coordination with city services, and thinks that the municipal budget crisis may actually provide the impetus for reducing duplication. “I see it as an opportunity,” she said.

Among the initiatives already put in place is the designation of 85 “empowerment schools,” those with low achievement, which are almost all high-poverty and mostly Black and Latino. These schools are getting extra teachers to reduce class size, a parent ombudsman, a social services liaison, targeted professional development, and close monitoring from educator teams.

As for equity of resources, the superintendent came to town planning to implement something called “weighted student funding,” which would reallocate resources among schools based on student needs. SRC Chair Sandra Dungee Glenn is also interested in that concept as a way to reduce “opportunity gaps” among different students.

“The achievement gap runs the gamut of many things; equity around facilities, school programs, teacher quality, all have an impact,” Dungee Glenn said.

The SRC plans to issue an updated Declaration of Education to set goals for academic progress between now and 2014. The initial declaration set 20 numerical targets for 2008, including narrowing the test score gap and reducing the dropout rate, but on most the District fell far short.

Ackerman knows that imposing new requirements on schools can only go so far – that these gaps have roots tangled in culture and attitudes as well as curricula and school programs. Her plans to hold adults accountable are also unclear, but she said she hopes to change behavior if not attitudes.

“We’re not trying to change hearts but to change behavior by putting in evaluation systems that matter,” she said. “Maybe we can work on hearts later. We’ve been trying that for too long.”

While some studies have shown that students do better in desegregated settings, partly because those schools tend to be less impacted by poverty, the options for that in Philadelphia are dwindling. Ackerman, who helped desegregate a White high school in suburban St. Louis as a teen, said that she has come “full circle” on that issue.

“In an ideal world, I think I’d want to have our schools completely integrated,” she said. “I do think we learn from each other. But that is not my reality. It is not the reality of urban schools. They are segregated by neighborhood, by race, by economic status. I can’t change those things, so I stopped thinking about desegregation and integration.

“My thoughts now are that, if you build a good school, people will come…. It’s not about kids sitting next to each other but whether all kids have access to the same quality of educational opportunities.”

She has established a new system of report cards, in which each school has annual goals in a variety of areas that go beyond the requirements of “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. In addition to explicit test score targets relating to the achievement gap, the report cards also include such measures as on-track-tograduate rates and teacher attendance.

“I’ve been around the block two, three, four times,” Ackerman said. “I’m not trying to create anything new, but to perfect what I know works.”

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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