achievement gap

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, has a new analysis looking at whether teacher diversity matches the growing student diversity in American public schools. Spoiler alert: it does not. The report says while minorities now make up nearly half of the student population in America's schools, only 18 percent of teachers are minorities. In the report, Michigan scores a little better than average, but that's not saying a whole lot. The report's recommendations come from a left-of-center policy perspective, but the problems the report identifies should resonate regardless of your political persuasion.

flickr user biologycorner

I've been thinking a lot lately about standardized state tests. This fall, I spent about six weeks observing a classroom of third graders in Grand Rapids as they got ready to take their MEAP tests for the first time. 

I was interested in this because the MEAP has a big impact beyond the walls of a school. Standardized test scores have been shown to affect housing prices. And housing prices affect all kinds of things, from consumer spending, to municipal tax revenues to, well, school funding

So, test scores matter. 

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I've been thinking a lot about names lately - what they mean, what they project, what kinds of assumptions people make when they hear a name. So I decided to call up some experts and ask them: what's in a name?

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

When it comes to making sure kids are at grade level, the U.S. isn't doing so hot. Just a little over a third (36%) of 8-year olds are cognitively on track by the time they reach 3rd grade, according to a new Kids Count analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

When you break it down by income, the numbers are even more staggering: 19% of 8-year olds who come from low-income families (defined as being at or below 200% of the poverty line) have "appropriate cognitive skills," compared to 50% of kids who come from wealthier families.

Some bits of scientific research seem so obvious, you wonder why anyone even thought to do the study. But this seemingly obvious result out of the UK does have some surprises. Researchers found that kids who read for enjoyment end up doing better in school - which most of us probably realize. But it turns out that when researchers controlled for many different factors, reading for pleasure actually outranked parental education as a major factor in kids' academic progress. So if you want disadvantaged kids to learn more in school, cultivate a love of reading outside of it.

Terry Gaule is overseeing a rocket mission.

His team: a classroom full of 14 and 15 year old kids from Grand Rapids.

The mission: to build balloon-powered, Styrofoam rocket carts that will shoot across the floor.

The ultimate goal: learn the laws of the universe.

"The rocket is going to demonstrate Newton’s Third Law of Motion," says Gaule. "For every force, there’s another force that’s equal in magnitude but opposite in direction."  

Newton’s Third Law. Action, reaction.

This class itself, this whole summer program, is a reaction. A reaction to a big problem - the problem that kids from low-income families tend to do worse in school than kids from families with more money. The achievement gap problem.

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Chris Devers / Flickr

 Last week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy released its latest "Context and Performance" report card for Michigan schools. We mentioned the Center's CAP study once before, back when the study only included Michigan high schools. The latest release covers elementary and middle schools to provide a searchable database of every school in the state. 

What makes the CAP study unique, among all the many school ranking studies out there, is that the Center makes an attempt to statistically correct for the income levels of the students at the school. One of the problems of just ranking each school on raw test scores (as the official state website does) is that schools in well-off communities always come out on top. It can be difficult to tell if schools in low-income areas are bad schools, or if they just have more disadvantaged students. 

The Mackinac Center says its ranking system provides more of an "apples to apples" comparison for Michigan schools: 

Four years' worth of MEAP test scores in all subjects and for grades 3 through 8 were adjusted based on the percentage of students in an elementary or middle school who qualified for a free lunch. A school's "CAP Score" indicates how far above or below projections an elementary or middle school performed given its student population's socioeconomic status, with 100 set as the average. 

So which schools come out on top when you use this measure?

photo courtesy of Detroit Public Schools

 This morning there's a press event at Burton International School in Detroit that's worth a mention.

Wayne State University is planning on investing in the middle schoolers at Burton in what seem like significant ways. 

Gap watch: Why aren't guys finishing college?

Jun 17, 2013
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Chris Devers / Flickr

Researchers Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchman write in the Los Angeles Times about another phenomenon for the gap watch files.

According to Buchman and DiPrete, "anti-academic male stereotypes" are keeping young men from college and making it harder for them to graduate.

When I told people I was working on this special, one hour show about race, a lot of the reactions were along the lines of “race…hmm….interesting.” Like, man, I’m glad I don’t have your job. That’s cause the topic of race is fraught; people hear it and they run for their hills.

One place where parents and teachers are talking about race in the classroom is Birmingham, MI. Birmingham is pretty much as white a city as they come, with a median household income around $100,000. Espresso bars and high end restaurants and shops line the streets downtown, and there’s a four star hotel where out of town celebrities stay whenever they visit metro Detroit.

From the looks of it, Birmingham has it all. But dig a little deeper, and Birmingham has a problem.

Gap #1: Achievement

Jason Clinkscale is the principal at Berkshire Middle School in Birmingham. He says when it comes to student performance on standardized tests, "the achievement gap is alive and well" in his district.

We're not talking about some 5 or 10 point difference here. The achievement gap in the Birmingham district translates to a nearly 30 point difference in proficiency in math at the middle school level between white and black students. By the time those students reach 11th grade, the math gap is more than 50 points wide.

Clinkscale is an African American with two daughters of his own. He uses words like "sobering" and "frustrating" to describe the achievement gap. And the gap isn’t just on paper. You can see it play out from classroom to classroom: minorities are over-represented in lower level classes and underrepresented in honors and advanced classes.