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Professional Opinion

Narrowing the achievement gap in K12 is not enough

Creating an effective systemic equity initiative requires a deep cultural shift
Verletta White is interim superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.
Verletta White is interim superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.

Districts are increasingly tasked with providing options for at-risk and underserved student populations to address persistent achievement gaps. While nationwide gains in closing achievement gaps have been made, research shows that underserved student populations still achieve at lower rates than their peers in many areas.

Black and Hispanic students graduate at lower rates than white students. Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. Students with disabilities are two times more likely to receive out-of-school suspension when compared to non-disabled students.

Underserved students attend and complete college at lower rates and drop out at higher rates. They are less likely to have access to qualified teachers and high-quality curriculum.

This is also true at Baltimore County Public Schools, where students speak 85 languages and are from 108 countries. Our students have different social identities. Some struggle with physical and learning disabilities, others come from a myriad of socioeconomic statuses.

Indicator: Grade 8 Algebra 2012-15

The percentage of African-American students completing Algebra I with a B or higher increased by 4.9 percentage points. The gap between white and African-American students decreased by 1.8 percentage points. The percentage of Algebra I completers increased among students who receive special education and free and reduced-price meals.

Just as important, students who are ready to take on additional academic challenges should have the opportunity to excel, while those who are historically underserved deserve the extra time and attention needed for content mastery.

Our school system is diverse, and factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, income level, English language learner status and special education status all impact student achievement.

Even before the passage of ESSA, we established an Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency to address these specific equity challenges with the mission of creating, sustaining and investing in a culture of deliberate excellence for every student, school and community.

The Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency promotes systems of structure and support for students, teachers and other stakeholders in which equity and fairness are embedded in all areas of the district’s academic, social and cultural programs.

In 2012-13, our senior leadership began a listening-and-learning tour throughout the district that confirmed inequity was a common overall theme. Throughout these conversations, two particular areas of inequity were addressed: academic rigor and access to technology.

We heard that in various parts of the system, there were opportunities for some students, but not for all.

When parents told us that they wanted to make sure their children had the same opportunities as other students in the system, that became a key to the development of our strategic plan, of which equity serves as the foundation.

Indicator: Graduation

The four-year cohort graduate rate for the class of 2016 was 89.2 percent, marking the sixth consecutive year of gains. The graduation-rate gap between African-American and white students has disappeared completely.

Learner-centered environments

One tool teachers can use to achieve equity and access at scale is digital curriculum. However, technology that personalizes instruction can’t single-handedly create equity. It must be combined with a well-designed and supportive learning environment in which staff are culturally competent.

Baltimore County Public Schools has created a model of equity that incorporates all of these elements. Learner-centered environments needed to be deeply embedded in classrooms throughout the district to personalize learning and to provide all students with access to the resources they need for high academic achievement.

To do this at scale required a strong combination of technology tools (introduced via the Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow digital learning transformation) and a supportive learning environment developed through equity leadership coaching.

Indicator: Dropout

Dropout rates declined from 11 percent in 2012 to 8.8 percent in 2015. The rate declined consistently across gender and most student subgroups as well.

Personalized PD

In order to create supportive learning environments and generate support for equitable access to learning opportunities, we knew we had to garner buy-in from classroom teachers. For this reason, professional development in equity leadership is a key component of our work.

This equity training equips staff with the skills, knowledge and capacity to personalize learning for their students. We found that these conversations must reflect the same personalized approach to learning that we were trying to establish within our classrooms. This also requires 1-to-1 conversations.

It’s not the type of PD where it’s a “sit-and-get,” or a one-shot deal. This work requires reflection. It requires evaluation of efforts and monitoring. When these conversations are personalized, then they are more powerful. PD must feel small, regardless of the size of a school system.

Raising the bar for all

Technology is a key component to equity and it’s incredibly important to offer students learning that is accessible. Technology not only facilitates personalized learning, but also helps create learner-centered environments.

One of the most important technology tools we use to further our equity work is digital curriculum. Using a rigorous curriculum, we create conditions that allow equitable access by granting educators a resource for enhancing instruction. It also stimulates content mastery for marginalized student groups while providing others with advanced placement opportunities.

We had a very slow, methodical rollout of our technology so we could allow time for professional learning. Knowing that teachers were essential to the success of our digital curriculum, we issued devices to teachers a full year prior to rolling out pilot programs in trial schools.

In a traditional classroom setting it’s difficult to personalize learning for all students without digital curriculum. One of our teachers might teach six, 50-minute instructional periods per day with 30 students in each class. All of those students learn differently. Some students are more advanced; others need additional support to master grade-level content.

However, every student is capable of learning within their “zone of proximal development.”

Teachers may struggle to work with underserved students while also supporting advanced students who need further enrichment. It’s not only about closing achievement gaps, it is also about raising the bar for all students. Meeting students where they are now and allowing them to work at their own pace is critically important.

Equity of opportunity

We are now in the fourth year of our equity program, and student performance is an essential evaluation metric for tracking our progress. Since 2013, we have increased opportunities for students to access high-quality content, which includes expanded course offerings and credit recovery options through digital curriculum.

Gaps between student groups have narrowed as well, thanks to staff support and a system that provides equitable access, flexible options for learning and early warnings for intervention.

Our data shows that when access to digital curriculum is combined with supportive instruction and learning environments, it’s possible to create equity of opportunity and begin to close those achievement gaps.

Progress and potential

Realizing our vision to create instruction environments that support academic rigor and cultural relevance, we believe we are igniting the potential of each and every student through our commitment to equity.

While there has been progress in advancing equity in education, there remains tremendous potential to ensure that every student receives access to the specific and varied resources they need to graduate on time and to be college and career ready.

By supporting every teacher and every classroom with personalized learning, we have an opportunity to better meet the needs of all students in our quest to increase academic performance across the nation.


Verletta White is interim superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools