Superintendent says system is to blame for achievement gap

Friday, February 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:43 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In her address Thursday evening, Phyllis Chase, superintendent of Columbia Public School District, spoke about the achievement gap within the educational system and called on teachers, parents and students to close it.

The lecture, given at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at MU, was part of a monthlong series to commemorate Black History Month.

The achievement gap is a term used to describe dramatic differences in test scores between groups of students within a district. The gap is one of the ways inequality manifests itself today, Chase said.

Public school classrooms across the country vary in effectiveness, and some suffer from poverty, low achievement and ineffective teaching, Chase said. She added that the students who learn in the worst classrooms are disproportionately minority children and children from low income households.

Chase emphasized the importance of quality teachers in educating students.

If teachers are ineffective, their students will be ineffective, too, Chase said, adding that a student can survive two years with a teacher graded as “not effective,” but after three years, the dropout rate increases dramatically. Minority and low-income students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers simply because there are more inexperienced teachers teaching in their schools, Chase said.

“In schools that have high minority and poverty rates, there is a much higher incidence of inexperienced teachers, as well as teachers who have not majored in the subject they are teaching,” Chase said.

Chase said the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, has changed the way public schools evaluate themselves. Instead of focusing on school districts’ standardized testing averages, results are separated according to categories of students, such as gender and ethnicity, allowing schools to target specific problems, Chase said.

“Averages hide a lot of sins,” Chase said. “Pulling apart the data allows us to see what areas need improvement.”

“Using the word ‘achievement’ puts the blame squarely on the students’ shoulders,” Chase said, but she noted that it is the system that has failed them. Columbia is working to close the achievement gap by better coordinating teachers and curriculum instead of placing the majority of the burden on students, Chase said.

Teachers and administrators in the district accept responsibility for students’ achievements, Chase said. When a student fails, she said, administrators ask themselves, “What else might we have been able to do?”

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