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Narrowing School Achievement Gaps

5.18.16

Keppel professor of practice of educational policy and administration Paul Reville Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


Keppel professor of practice of educational policy and administration Paul Reville Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Education experts and political leaders from across the country gathered at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) on Tuesday for the first convening of a new initiative that seeks to combat inequality in American K-12 education. The project, called “By All Means: Redesigning Education to Restore Opportunity,” is planned to encompass field work in six cities from Oakland, California, to Somerville, Massachusetts, as well as four more national conferences, during two and a half years. Its goal is to narrow the gap in academic performance between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers.

Dean James Ryan opened the session calling the By All Means initiative “a bold and ambitious plan to address the challenges of poverty in education head on” and praising Keppel professor of practice of educational policy and administration Paul Reville, who spearheads the project along with his Education Redesign Lab.

Reville, who previously served as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, said that despite his work to improve educational performance in a state whose students perform relatively well on standardized tests, “Doing well isn’t good enough.” Even after 20 years of sustained focus on education reform, “There’s still an iron law correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement,” he added. “We set out to eliminate that correlation between ZIP code and educational achievement, and yet we have failed, on that score, to achieve that goal.” 

“Achievement gaps are an educational and an economic problem,” said keynote speaker Deval Patrick ’78, J.D. ’82, LL.D. ’15, who was governor of Massachusetts during Reville’s time at the department of education. “But to let them languish for as long as we have—that’s a moral question.”

Patrick also noted that those “achievement gaps” remain apparent in Massachusetts even through his administration spent record amounts on the state education budget. “Stuck in those gaps,” he added, “are poor children, children with special needs, children who speak English as a second language, and more often children of color.”

Patrick was introduced by President Drew Faust, who said she shares “a deep concern about achievement gaps that leave the lives of American children up to chance, their possibilities too often preordained at birth.”

Tuesday’s event also featured panel discussions with educators and policymakers, including the mayors of the six cities participating in By All Means. In the mayors’ panel, Jorge Eloza, of Providence, Rhode Island, said his administration is participating in the initiative in order to help prevent students from “veering in the wrong direction.” He continued, “I want to make sure that we build systems so that every single one of them can stay on course, as a matter of course, and not against all odds.”

Reville said that while the project will seek novel solutions to the problem of inequality in education, he expects three areas to be central to its efforts: integrating health and social-service providers into the school system; promoting opportunities for learning outside the classroom—such as summer camp and afterschool programs; and personalizing education to the needs of individual students. He criticized what he called an “outdated, outmoded factory model of education, a model that assumes that one size will fit all.”

The mayors took the opportunity to highlight the work they have already begun to improve educational outcomes in their hometowns. For instance, Eloza discussed his city’s award-winning “Providence Talks” program, which seeks to encourage families, especially those with low incomes, to talk to their young children, by equipping them with recording devices that monitor what the toddlers hear. (Research has found that poor children have heard, on average, 30 million fewer words than their affluent counterparts by age three.)

Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, mentioned his city’s “55,000 Degrees” initiative, which seeks to increase the number of residents graduating from college by 2020. He lamented that many students fall behind their classmates at a very early age, and struggle to catch up throughout their educational careers. “We’re happy to pay $25,000 to incarcerate these kids, but we won’t spend four or five grand for universal pre-K,” he said. “Our system clearly does not work.”

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