Achievement Gap? Which One?

College and Career Readiness through Blended Learning

And what about our older youth? It’s not just inner-city schools that need to raise their game. Even our best suburban schools fall short in the international student achievement sweepstakes, says Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia Teachers College (“The Suburban Education Gap,” WSJ 11/15/12).

“30 years after ‘A Nation at Risk’ not one major urban district has been turned around and many of our suburban districts are losing ground,” writes Levine. “We have settled on a path of global mediocrity for our most affluent schools and national marginality for failing inner-city schools.”

Mr. Levine’s catalogue of problems is familiar: lagging PISA scores; urban/suburban achievement gaps; low-income kids unprepared for the job market; high-income kids falling behind their peers in Singapore/Finland/Shanghai; US losing competitive edge; threat to national security. It’s on the solutions side of the ledger that he falls short. Parents are the key, he says.

“Parents need to say that they won’t stand for these intolerable achievement gaps … Parents need to demand changes… organize their communities… cultivate the media… stage newsworthy events … tell politicians their votes will go to candidates who support improvement… even go to the courts.”

A tall order even in the most affluent districts; but parent activism is no more likely to budge urban districts in the next 30 years than it has in the last. As Mr. Levine concedes, “This isn’t a game for amateurs.” And parents are by definition amateurs taking on professionals. The public education institution is impregnably organized, funded, and politically fortified. It can outlast any parent uprising. The most successful challenge to the status quo, the charter school movement, after 20 years has grown to only 4% of total K-12 enrollment.

The urban-suburban achievement gap was first described in 1961 by James B. Conant in Slums and Suburbs. If Conant were writing today, he would have to title his book Urban, Suburban, Global and he would sound like Tom Friedman. He already did sound like Tom Friedman in 1961. Many more voices have swelled the chorus these 50 years. According to Arthur Levine, they’ve been singing to an empty chapel. Now he wants parents to take up the cudgel.

A more likely way of changing the educational experience of students in urban and suburban schools is through online blended learning. With online access, any school classroom can be a portal to the best instruction on the planet. It doesn’t require changing the structure of the school or replacing the faculty. Rather than beat parental swords against the fortified walls of school organization and personnel policies, it would be more productive for parents to advocate for ploughshares: in-school technology and online instructional options.

No one tracks the non-K12 achievement gap. But out of school youth, graduates and dropouts, are a large and critical component of our workforce—and our society.

We still have a national high school dropout rate of 25%– 40% in the urban districts. That’s 3 million high school kids dropping out each year. And those who graduate from high school but do not complete at least a two-year college degree are only marginally better off than those who drop out. 70% of high school graduates 18 to 24 years old without college degrees can’t find full time work. That’s 14 million young people without a secure foothold in the labor market.

For these older youth who need alternative pathways to further education, finding a practicable way to deliver highquality differentiated instruction is even more difficult than for their younger in-school counterparts. Alternative programs lack the massive (even if less than optimally effective) infrastructure of mainstream K12. They need a light, low-cost, flexible delivery model. Online is the obvious delivery method, and the “blend” can be adjusted to the needs of the student and the availability of teachers and classrooms. Some students can go virtual; others need a class and a teacher. How much and how often can vary. Online instruction gives program operators the flexibility to deploy their resources in the most efficient way to provide the most individualized instruction possible to the greatest number of students. The plunging prices of computers and tablets make online access more available every product cycle.

Changing the day-to-day instructional experience of students can change schools. Broadening access to online instruction can erase the barrier between in-school and out-of-school. Higher achievement can be a win-win proposition for parents and schools, urban and suburban, younger and older students.

–Gary Kaplan, Executive Director, JFYNetWorks/Boston

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