July 17, 2001

As schools prepare to open their doors once again, it is a good time to consider how this year can and should be different from previous years. Those who are part of the highest-performing 25 percent of students will have access to some of the world's finest free educational opportunities. However, the 25 percent of students who are lowest-performing will toil with worksheets and textbooks that don't challenge them or inspire them to work harder in school.

How can we close the gap in student achievement?

The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), through its Middle Grades Assessment, has gathered information from 5,000 eighth-graders and 1,800 middle grades teachers in 60 schools in 14 states. There is a difference of 70 to 80 points between the achievement scores of the highest-performing 25 percent of students and the lowest-performing 25 percent. These gaps are true for both white and African-American students, and they exist in every subject assessed (reading, mathematics and science). Smaller gaps--20 to 30 points--also exist between African-American students and white students in both the highest-performing and the lowest-performing 25 percent of students.

To uncover the reason for these gaps, SREB analyzed teachers' and students' responses to questions about their schools and classrooms. Student and teacher perceptions indicate that there are other gaps -- the varying quality of leadership, expectations, guidance and teaching practices--that affect student learning and achievement.

The leadership gap: More than half of teachers in the highest-performing schools--but only 37 percent of the teachers in the lowest-performing schools--say that their schools' goals and priorities are clear. Leaders in these high-performing schools are more likely to encourage teachers to teach more rigorous content and to maintain a demanding yet supportive environment that pushes students to do their best.

There also are differences in how teachers view their relationships with administrators and colleagues. Teachers in high-performing schools are more likely to report that principals consult with them before making decisions that affect teaching and learning. These teachers also are more likely to say that teachers and administrators work together to improve student achievement and that teachers are encouraged to experiment with teaching practices that engage more students in learning.

The expectations gap: Low expectations are a major deterrent to improving achievement; they undermine the importance of student effort and quality learning experiences. Low expectations are based on the assumption that race, poverty and family educational levels prevent schools from helping many students excel. Even in the highest-performing schools, nearly half of the teachers say that students' success or failure is due largely to factors over which teachers have no control. In the lowest-performing schools, almost two-thirds of the teachers hold that opinion.

This belief by middle grades teachers in SREB states is reinforced by national and state data that show strong relationships between student achievement and poverty. Poverty and family situations become handy excuses for why students do not learn.

District and school leaders can change the climate for learning by examining what successful schools do. Successful leaders listen to what students and teachers say about their schools, and they raise expectations. These leaders understand how effective instructional practices and deeper knowledge of content can improve student achievement.

The guidance gap: High-performing students in the middle grades are much more likely to report that they talked with counselors several times about which classes to take when they get to high school. High-performing students also are much more likely to report that they intend to complete college. In all racial/ethnic groups, the low-performing students who need the most help in developing educational goals are the least likely to have received such help.

In many middle grades schools, counselors have too little time and too many students--with too many serious problems--to reach out to students through a traditional guidance program. Schools that use teachers as advisers and mentors to students can make sure that students and parents receive timely information about careers and college-preparatory programs in high school.

The teaching practices gap: Using a statistical model that controlled for the effects of poverty, race and gender, SREB compared students' responses about classroom experiences with their achievement in reading, mathematics and science on the 2000 SREB Middle Grades Assessment. Four teaching practices were found to be linked with higher student achievement in all three subjects:

1. Two-thirds of high-performing students reported that their teachers indicated the amount and quality of work needed to earn an A or B on an assignment; about one-third of low-performing students said their teachers provided such
guidelines. Teachers who provide specific guidelines for assignments and examples of quality work translate content standards into concrete performance standards for students.

2. Almost three-fourths of high-performing students reported that their teachers encouraged them to do well in school. Significantly fewer low-performing students said they were encouraged to put forth their best effort.

3. Most high-performing students reported that teachers set high standards for them and helped them to meet these standards. Significantly fewer low-performing students said they were expected and helped to meet high standards; their classes were less likely to emphasize high-quality work and have explicit performance guidelines.

4. In no group of students did a majority report that their teachers knew their subjects well and made them interesting and useful. In one interview during a school visit, a student described teachers who knew their subjects as "always asking about the `hows' and `whys.' They ask us to compare and contrast, and they challenge us to think."

Schools with high expectations and successful students:

-- establish clear goals and priorities for higher academic achievement;

-- provide time for faculty and administrators to work on curricular and instructional issues;

-- maintain a demanding yet supportive environment that helps all students achieve higher standards by providing more time and more help to those who need them;

-- help teachers improve their teaching practices and teach more rigorous content linked to performance standards; and

-- provide opportunities for students to meet with counselors, teacher-advisers and parents to discuss their educational and career plans.

Teachers and school leaders can make a difference in improving the achievement of all students and should not accept outside factors as insurmountable barriers to student success. By offering the same educational opportunities to all students, middle grades schools can eliminate the gaps in student achievement.

Sondra Cooney is director of the Making Middle Grades Matter initiative at the Southern Regional Education Board. SREB is the nation's oldest compact for education and has 16 member states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

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