By Paula White, Montclair Achievement Gap Advisory Panel
Montclair’s public schools strike a delicately engineered balance of racial composition, but they have yet to realize equity in academic challenge, opportunity and success. This gap is unfair, and while difficult to close, it can and must be done.
In June 2015, the Montclair Achievement Gap Advisory Panel (AGAP) reported, “We have desegregated our schools. We have not integrated our outcomes.” Exactly two years later in June 2017, this statement remains alarmingly true. To solve this problem, we must address several pivotal factors head-on.
First, we must acknowledge that closing the achievement gap is not too steep a mountain for us to climb. We know this because proof points of success exist right here in our state.
While there are outliers from both races, here in Montclair the academic achievement of African-American students across all socioeconomic groups lags behind that of their white peers. Let’s examine the crucial benchmark of third-grade reading proficiency. Fifty percent or more of white third-graders in each of our elementary schools are reading proficiently; in fact, with the exception of one school, that percentage exceeds 67 percent. However, there isn’t one single school where even 50 percent of African-American third-graders meet grade level standards in reading. By comparison, in Newark — a much tougher community just a few miles down the road — there are nonselective public school campuses filled with poor, black students who are achieving identically as well as prosperous white students in Montclair.
Consider also that after the New Jersey Department of Education designated public schools with wide achievement gaps between student subgroups as “focus” schools, several of these schools went on to achieve high student growth, far better than other focus schools with the same achievement histories. As Montclair’s two focus schools work to make similar strides, it is important to remember that success can be achieved.
Once we accept the fact that closing the academic achievement gap is indeed possible, we must identify the most urgent actions to make this happen. With an Assistant Superintendent for Achievement and Equity in place to lead gap-closing efforts, we’re on the right track. Here are 3 high-impact next steps:
• Focus on a small set of AGAP recommendations each year. It would be overwhelming and ineffective to try to do everything at once. Instead, we must attach quantifiable goals to a few foci, then work to get to a deep level of implementation, support and monitoring of these initiatives.
• Improve the teaching quality in the district. Teachers are the in-school factor that matters most for our students. Teacher evaluation data tell us that virtually all of our teachers are effective, while student outcomes tell us that many students are not learning as much as they should. We must reconcile this unevenness by taking best practices in the classroom seriously, allowing the many excellent teachers in our schools to collaborate meaningfully with their peers, and respecting teachers enough to give them a voice in decisions about their own professional development.
• Take the temperature of every major stakeholder group in Montclair Public Schools. Do parents feel equipped to partner with schools to improve their children’s learning? How positive is the experience of the educators in our district? Are our children happy to be in our schools? A climate and culture survey will provide important information about these and other questions and steer district leadership in a direction that will help all children succeed.
Lastly, as ordinary citizens, we must help with gap-closing efforts. Several local after-school and summer programs provide tutoring, mentoring or other forms of student support. We can find a program and contribute our time or other resources to their efforts. Also, nothing impacts a person’s quality of life like education, so we can make a difference for Montclair’s children by keeping the equity conversation alive whenever we talk about our schools.
In Montclair, we care, we hope and we dream, but most of all, we get things done. Let us hold our community accountable for remedying the achievement gap so that we can finally move our schools from good to great.
Paula L White is a member of Montclair’s Achievement Gap Advisory Panel.