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Educators fume at contention that schools alone can’t close achievement gap

Can’t is a four-letter word educators say they won’t accept.

So, you can understand their provocation today, when keynote speaker and researcher Richard Rothstein talked about academic achievement differences between black and white kids and told them: “I think the achievement gap cannot be closed.”

The proclamation seemed a call to arms to the nearly 200 school administrators, board members, other educators and legislators at the winter conference of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

“My team came out fuming,” Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bill Green said later. They’re not going to give up. “We have kids for six to eight hours a day. That’s our opportunity to give them the world.’

“I couldn’t get up every day and motivate my staff if I didn’t believe that daily we’re working to close the gap. A public education is the cornerstone of democracy. Our job is to balance the playing field,” said St. Paul Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

Conference sure stimulated conversation
The half-day conference was designed to stimulate discussion on integration, school choice and student achievement at a time when school populations across the state are becoming increasingly diverse, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the association. And it did.

“I don’t mean we can’t do a better job with children,” elaborated Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute and author of “Class and Schools”, as well as journal articles where he argues, “Even the best schools can’t close the race achievement gap.”

The bottom line, he said, is that schools alone can’t close the gap because the educational achievement lag between white kids and black kids is virtually mirrored in the gap between different social classes, between rich and poor. And that gap is only widening.

Researcher says social reforms essential, too
What are needed are social, economic and educational reforms for children early on and all along, Rothstein said. He cited studies linking school achievement to stable, integrated housing, health care, nutrition, parental economic security and even child-rearing styles.

Look at the research and differences that exist for infants and toddlers related to social class, he suggested. Children of parents on welfare hear about 600 words an hour directed at them; children of working-class parents, about 1,300, and kids of college-educated and professional parents are exposed to an average 2,000 words per hour, he said. Consider the differences in their vocabularies by the time they start school.

Or look at health differences. Poorer children have higher absenteeism because they don’t get routine preventative health care, either because their parents can’t afford it or can’t take the time off from work to seek it, Rothstein said. A sick or absent child often falls behind in school work. Health clinics should be placed in schools, he said.

There’s an achievement gap, too, between children in terms of life experiences, he said, putting low-income black children even further behind low-income white kids. That is an argument in support of summer and after-school programs that involve children in sports programs and cultural field trips.

“Do I believe we can close the achievement gap? Absolutely,” said Carstarphen, one of a panel of educators reacting to Rothstein.

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