Reaching Performance Parity: A Shared Reality About the Achievement Gap

September 11, 2006

It is a mistake to assume that all members of the school community understand the nature of the achievement gap challenge. Getting stakeholders focused on the achievement gap is a challenge regardless of the demographic profile of a school, district, or community. I've had the privilege of working in a wide range of districts -- rich and poor, high performing and low performing, urban and suburban. No matter what job I held (teacher, principal, or superintendent), I always encountered an absence of understanding about the achievement of all students and the impediment we have placed in their path.

Shared Reality About the Achievement Gap

I remember the frustration of not being an effective communicator. To break through the ever-present complacency and mobilize a critical mass to do something about the pervasive achievement problem was difficult.

I decided to learn about change management, leadership, and engagement. I also soon learned that effective two-way communications were critical to any effort to raise awareness, increase knowledge of the issues, and challenge those responsible for educating students to meet high standards -- no alibis, no excuses, and no exceptions.

There are several strategies and tools that have helped build the critical mass of "equity warriors" in very different types of school communities. These approaches resulted in mobilization of a core team of school, district, and community stakeholders needed to address student achievement challenges and the broader acceptance of shared responsibility.

It may be difficult to accept the reality that ramped-up communications on the achievement-gap issue is needed, given all the evidence around us. However, the truth is that society at large does not seem to fully understand the impact of large numbers of students leaving public education without the skills and knowledge needed to be self-sufficient or to contribute as productive, responsible members of society. Fortunately, I heard the wake-up call and responded by learning whatever I could about creating inclusive dialogues that engaged broad cross sections of the school community. Discussed below are several staples in my tool kit for connecting the disconnected:

Community Conversations

Facilitated dialogue that involves diverse community representation in the review of a variety of student performance data is a good starting point for building shared reality. Special effort to ensure that data is transparent, clear, reliable, and accessible to diverse groups of stakeholders is important. The data should be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and include, but not be limited to, state test data, discipline statistics, staff composition and professional preparation, class size, discipline statistics, Advanced Placement access and AP exam performance, and SAT or ACT results.

Conversations incorporating the exploration of shared values, beliefs, and aspirations for their children, their schools, and their community are also important. The Education Trust has developed a comprehensive set of resources with some tools translated into Spanish. Courageous Conversations is a process that several districts are using to engage communities in difficult discussions of the achievement gap, race, and class.

Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM)

Earlier in my career, I remember how I felt when people around me did not echo my sense of urgency for dealing with our failure to educate all children to high levels of performance. All I knew is I couldn't get people to move and I was frustrated!

The CBAM framework helped me to move from "naming and blaming" to a much more responsible and productive set of strategies. CBAM helped me to be clear that a large part of my job as a change leader was to help people move along the change continuum. Being upset or blaming others for their failure to get onboard didn't make anything positive happen; it was frustrating for me and for others, who were sometimes the target of my frustration.

Incorporating the Concerns-Based Adoption Model into my leadership repertoire helped to channel my energies toward the use of more effective engagement approaches. My success with CBAM informed my theory of change and helped me to be more successful in growing the critical mass needed to make change happen. Over the years, CBAM has become my reflexive way of thinking about change in every role and work setting I have experienced.

Shared Reality Staff Conversations

Last spring, nearly 90 percent of the staff in the Greenwich, Connecticut, school district participated in a powerful series of staff-to-staff dialogues building on the work of the district's Closing Achievement Gaps Task Force. Fifty-five teacher facilitators, at least two from each of fourteen elementary and middle schools and twenty-five staff members from the high school, led discussions in their respective schools on the best practices recommended by the task force. The facilitators participated in a training session to prepare for leading shared reality discussions with their colleagues.

The report on the Shared Reality conversations indicated that more than sixty discussions were held, and from each discussion emerged three recommendations. Districtwide, teachers generated a group of recommended initiatives that were implemented in district schools. Shared Reality conversations helped to educate, build awareness, and to provide direction for district and school gap closing strategies. See the Greenwich district Web site for a full description of its successfully implemented Shared Reality process.

Community Linkages

The Greenwich Board of Education, as a component of its adoption of policy governance, conducted community linkage meetings following the adoption of closing achievement gaps as a major district priority. Greenwich, a high-performing, high-wealth, school district with an excellent reputation, recognized the importance of addressing the needs of the 20 percent of students who historically underperformed. The school board accepted responsibility for 100 percent of the students.

For most of the district's history, there was acceptance that low-income, Hispanic, and African American students and students with disabilities would perform at lower levels than their peers. The schools with the highest concentration of low-income children of color performed on the bottom rung of the achievement ladder year after year. There was no sense of urgency attached to closing the gap because 80 percent of the students were doing just fine.

The community linkage process engaged six role-alike groups (students, teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, and community members) in the exploration of four guiding questions:

Is closing the achievement gap worth doing?

Can it be done?

What needs to change to close gaps in our classrooms, schools, district, and community?

Is the district goal set by the board -- closing gaps to 10 percent or less between the highest and lowest performing student groups -- achievable?

Six 90-minute meetings, facilitated by three or four board members, were scheduled with each of six role-alike groups (students, parents, teachers, administrators, community members, and representatives of community-based organizations, including elected and appointed town officials).

Preparation for the series of meetings included organizing student performance data; a brief PowerPoint highlighting board policies and strategic directions related to the achievement gap; a report of a district task force on the topic; one or two short articles; and the set of questions to be explored during the linkage meeting. Careful notes were taken for each session and there was a strong effort to provide "air time" for as many participants as possible. The facilitating board members, with staff support, wrote a summary at completion, and the observations were shared with the full board at its regular monthly meeting.

The board and administration learned a great deal. The community also learned from listening to the voices of others within shareholder group who spoke about the importance of closing gaps. It was one thing for the administration to make the case, but when the case is made by students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders, it is much more effective and powerful.

People talking with their neighbors about performance, expectations, and the moral imperative to educate all students and the importance of all students having access to rigorous curriculum was extremely awesome. The summary of these community linkage meetings can be found on the Greenwich school district Web site.

Communicate Messages "Seven Times, Seven Ways"

"Seven times, seven ways" became a mantra for our communications. Adults, like our students, learn through different modalities and at different rates. Communication, like effective change strategies, is a process, not an event. To get the message across we must use multiple approaches and multiple modalities. The message must be framed, reframed, and delivered in different ways to build awareness and hopefully support.

Sending the flyer home in the backpack of middle school students, posting the single message in the newsletter or on the Web site, or making a spirited call for buy-in at a typical school faculty meeting are failed awareness-building strategies that are unlikely to achieve the desired result. The principle of communicating messages seven times, seven ways requires us to think creatively about how we approach the engagement of school communities in dialogue to accelerate action to close achievement gaps.

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