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Using Research to Narrow Gaps
African-American, Latino, and other students of color have much poorer odds of succeeding in public schools than do their White counterparts. But those odds can be improved.
The school district of Arlington, Virginia collected and used research data to target solutions for reducing the achievement gaps that exist for students of color. More than 20,000 students attend schools in Arlington, an inner-ring, suburban school district outside Washington, D.C. The student body is 48 percent White, 27 percent Hispanic/Latino, 13 percent African American, and 11 percent Asian. 32 percent of their students qualify for federally subsidized meals.
Since 1998, the highly diverse district has made gains in the passing rates on the Virginia Standards of Learning assessments of 79% for Hispanic/Latino students (from 47% to 84%) and more than 100% for African American students (passing rates rising from 37% to 77%). About three-quarters of the district’s 2009 graduates completed one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses during their high school careers.
In the recent book Gaining on the Gap: Changing Hearts, Minds, and Practice in the Arlington Public Schools, former Arlington superintendent Rob Smith and colleagues describe how they increased academic achievement and narrowed gaps. The book discusses the challenges (educational, social, and political) Arlington faced and the steps the district took to meet those challenges. For example, Smith asked his staff to exceed what’s required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. In fact, Smith went far beyond NCLB's focus on reading and math scores in Grades 3–8 and in high school. He insisted on measuring each major ethnic group, plus low-income students, students with disabilities, and students learning English, on the percentage:
Importance of Allies
One of Arlington’s most important district-based supports that assisted them in “gaining on the gap” included participation in MSAN - the Minority Student Achievement Network. Based at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, MSAN is a coalition of 25 multiracial, urban-suburban school districts from across the United States who seek to achieve the parallel goals of closing achievement gaps while ensuring all students achieve to high levels. To this end, districts work collaboratively to conduct and publish research, analyze policies, and examine practices that support the Network’s mission: to understand and change school practices and structures that keep racial achievement gaps in place.
MSAN was formed in 1999 as district superintendents realized they could address the challenges presented by racial achievement gaps more effectively by working together. As was the case with Arlington Public Schools, MSAN districts were already recognized for overall academic excellence, connections to major research universities, a historical commitment to racial integration, and strong parent and community support.
Research shaped the development of MSAN and is at the heart of its operation at WCER. Executive Director Madeline Hafner says educators in MSAN districts value research and realize that closing the research-to-practice gap is essential in narrowing student achievement gaps. Hafner says MSAN has worked to build a community of learners who engage in common practices across school districts, which include:
Convening Helps Educators and Students
This spring, MSAN offered one in a series of intensive research-based professional development opportunities for teacher leaders, principals, and district-level leaders from across MSAN districts. Held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the MSAN Institute focused specifically on developing equity-focused leadership and increasing cultural competency. Participants included directors of instructional equity, instructional coaches, and facilitators of diversity and equity initiatives.
Current research initiatives being conducted in MSAN districts were presented by WCER researchers but the focus of the two day Institute was on the sharing of Promising Practices from across MSAN districts. MSAN has defined a Promising Practices as school or district based initiatives which accelerate learning of students of color AND for which there is evidence the practice is effective over time and/or with multiple groups of students. Sharing of these research-based programs, policies, and practices comprise the heart of MSAN. MSAN’s convening opportunities are intended streamline and inform local district research and development and enhance networking among various district roles.
Students also have a role to play in shaping MSAN’s research and policy work as well. Each year teams of high achieving students from member districts gather to engage in discussions about the barriers students of color face in their schools and districts, and develop action plans that outline steps their schools and districts can take to eliminate those barriers and improve the effectiveness of their schools. Examples of student-developed initiatives that have been implemented in MSAN districts include an AP Buddy Program, Student Leadership course on Diversity Dialogues, a Sociology of Achievement Gaps course, and the MAC Scholars mentoring program.
The first MSAN Student Conference was held in 2000 co-hosted by the Shaker Heights City School District and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Ohio. Subsequent student conferences have been hosted by member districts in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Evanston and Oak Park, Illinois, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Princeton, New Jersey, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Green Bay and Madison, Wisconsin, Arlington, Virginia, Bedford, New York, and Columbia, Missouri. The 2012 MSAN Student Conference will be hosted by one of the newest MSAN districts- Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, AZ.
More information about the network is available here.
More about this year's student conference is here.
For more about the Arlington Public Schools policies and results, see here.