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The Truly Disadvantaged: Why Higher Achievement May Not Translate Into Policy or Solution

Thursday, July 12, 2012

This week, the Roosevelt Summer Academy organized a tour for its DC fellows at the Higher Achievement program in Kelly Miller Middle School located in NE DC. I can speak for all the fellows who went when I say it was truly impressive and powerful. The kids we met had some amazing ambitions and career goals, aspiring to become philosophers, policemen, and forensic scientists (in all honesty at that age, I'm pretty sure I didn't have a clue what a forensic scientist did/was). After further questions about the program, we learned more about its high success rates (e.g. very high college matriculation). We also learned they have an extraordinary budget - which is good, because if you're going to try to offer intervention programs for these youth, you need good money to provide quality services. Quality was clearly something the program had accomplished.

The idea behind the program, I take, is to offer some highly motivated students extra resources, without which the odds of them succeeding are limited simply by being students in the struggling school system of our nation's capital. We met some great kids who will no doubt accomplish so much thanks to their own motivation as well as the help provided by Higher Achievement. But let's talk about policy now..

Some things one can easily miss from the tour: the students (and, for the most part, their families) are already highly motivated when they apply to join; there is an extraordinary budget for ~450 students (about the size of one of DC's 25 middle schools); participating students with behavioral problems do get kicked out. 

Before I continue, I should emphasize that this is in no way a criticism of the program, but an attempt to understand how it may not translate into policy. As a participant in a very similar program in Northern VA throughout middle/high school, I recognize these programs' value and good work.

For the sake of education reform, then, its worth recognizing that (a) students are self-selecting, (b) the program is somewhat selective, and (c) the large majority of DC students will not be involved in the program's many enrichment services, even if the program is well-funded. That is to say, an enrichment program like this does not present the solution to the much larger and more complicated problem we've come to know as the 'achievement gap'. 

Many high-achieving, high-poverty schools (e.g. Kipp schools) work in similar ways. They serve disadvantaged youth, but these youth don't always fully represent the truly disadvantaged who fill the public schools that have striking rates of concetrated poverty among other issues. The schools who serve the truly disadvantaged, regardless of having effective teachers and great in-school programs, cannot (alone) overcome the obstacles rooted in neighborhood poverty, family poverty, and student poverty. Now of course, stronger (locally relevant) curriculums, highly effective teachers, and improved school environments are ESSENTIAL to progress. But the narrative of closing the achievement gap cannot fall short from including a serious discussion on the role of poverty and its related out-of-school factors.

Effective reform requires a broader approach. Government spending (not just money from donors) must be invested in measures that address the problems of the truly disadvantaged. The average student who does not have the incredible motivation we witnessed this week, impeded by the overwhelming forces of insecure housing, extreme poverty, unmet health care needs, hunger, exposure to violence, depression, and the list goes on. School improvement and the existence of programs like Higher Achievement cannot close the achievement gap until bolder reforms are accomplished for the sake of underserved kids. Early childhood education (pre-k) must be universalized; unemployment, underemployment, and precarious employment must be addressed through a job creation and higher wages; quality health services must be provided to all families who need it; summer enrichment must be universalized; safety must be secured.

But we want an easier way out. Truth is, in order to close the achievement gap, these obstacles must be addressed with concrete social and economic reforms for the truly disadvantaged. It will take a while; but as far as I can tell, this isn't even part of the national discourse over education yet so it will definitely take a while. The need for this kind of approach has been proven by countless studies on the relationship between achievement and poverty. So why do we hesitate to act?

As the wealthiest nation, America's treatment of the poor is simply unacceptable. As other nations are starting to race past us in educational achievement, it is imperative that we once and for all address the roots of the achievement gap.

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