Team up to close the educational achievement gap

(AP Photo/Steve Pope, File)

Our tri-county region has been blessed with good news recently regarding the progress being made by our four school districts. Thanks to the hard work of teachers, principals, district staff, superintendents, school boards, parents and especially students, in 2014, for the first time all four were rated “Excellent” by the S.C. Department of Education. How then do we reconcile that fact with the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative’s (TCCC) recent Regional Education Report which showed significant achievement gaps that are getting worse?

The hard facts are that, since 2009, children who are already proficient at reading and math, mostly from higher income families (and mostly white) have improved at a much faster rate than students from lower income families (mostly black and/or Hispanic) whose proficiency gains have been modest at best. As a consequence, gaps that have always existed continue to widen, while the improved performance of higher income students drives the overall school and district ratings higher.

The data tell the story. Third grade reading proficiency is understood to be predictive of future success, and in the tri-county region, one in five students is not proficient in reading and one in five fails to graduate from high school on time. Our kids are starting school behind, not yet ready for the teaching and learning delivered by our schools. Whether the result of preschool preparation, family resources, school curriculum, the quality of instruction or some of each, the seeds of the achievement gap are clearly visible by kindergarten. Many children from lower income households who start behind, stay behind. From 2009 to 2014, the data show that from third to eighth grade, these children score at “Not Proficient” levels in reading and math at about triple the rate of children from households of higher means.

Although the region’s average high school graduation rate has risen steadily, 14 percentage points separate higher income from lower income student success rates. The majority of local graduates who attend Trident Technical College, mostly from lower income families, require substantial remediation in reading and math before they can take college-level courses.

South Carolina proficiency assessments (Palmetto [PASS] and mCLASS:CIRCLE test results) and the high school graduation rate, illuminate and quantify the gaps from pre-K through high school. And while we freely acknowledge that there are deficiencies in these performance measures, particularly the new mCLASS:CIRCLE test, the magnitude of the gaps overwhelms any reasonable margin of error estimate.

The leadership of our community, including school superintendents, government officials, businesses, non-profits, philanthropists and the faith-based community recently came together to discuss these data. They reaffirmed the commitment that led to the formation of the TCCC nearly two years ago — these gaps can and must be closed. They believe as we do that significant progress can only be made if the facts are first made visible and then the path to the solution is “owned” by the entire community.

And we believe that success can only be attained through close collaboration with our schools, founded on trust, with a reliance on data and a focus on success for every student.

“Ownership” means heralding success where we have it and also using data to understand how successes came about. And it means identifying where progress is not being made so that continuous improvement can be pursued. Ultimately, it will mean making some hard choices as a community, regardless of politics or personal preference, to invest in and scale those initiatives that truly move the needle, and to withdraw support from those that do not.

TCCC will in March begin more focused collaborations in early childhood development and high school graduation, following up on the two regional conferences/symposia it helped to sponsor last fall. Additional collaborations will follow across the remainder of the birth-workforce readiness continuum. Progress will be made at the speed of trust, and trust takes time to build.

In the meantime, we should consider ourselves fortunate to have “excellent” school districts and committed community partners with which to continue this work.

Anita Zucker, CEO of The InterTech Group, is chair of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative (TCCC). John C. Read is TCCC’s CEO.