Ann Arbor school board receives harsh assessment of progress on closing the achievement gap
The Ann Arbor school board got a harsh assessment of where the district’s efforts to shrink the achievement gap stand Wednesday by officials from the Pacific Education Group.
Glenn Singleton, president and chief executive officer of Pacific Education Group, said the district is doing great work in some buildings to shrink the achievement gap. However, he said he believes principals and other Ann Arbor schools employees in many buildings are afraid to confront racial issues in schools.
“The message they get from administration is go do this equity work, but don’t ruffle any feathers,” Singleton said, pointing to incidents such as the controversy at Dicken Elementary School in 2010. “That’s not working. That’s not working. And when they ruffle feathers, they feel like there’s a sanctioning. Many who are watching from the outside say, ‘I don’t want to be in that position, I’m just going to sit back here.’”
Singleton and his company were hired by the district in 2003 to help the district shrink the achievement gap, the term commonly referred to as the difference in grades, test scores and overall school environment between white and minority students.
The achievement gap has been on the school board’s radar for a decade, district spokesman Liz Margolis said.
The district measures the achievement gap on several levels, from Michigan Education Assessment Program test scores from students' progress in class. It considers race as well as economic disadvantages when it measures the gap.
Schools have made strides in closing the achievement gap with special supplemental math and reading programs, for example, but there is still work to do. Test scores show that 71 percent of eighth grade black students had proficient or advanced MEAP mathematics test scores in the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 94 percent of white students, for example. While it’s less than ideal, it does show progress from 2005-2006, when 48 percent of eighth grade black students were proficient or advanced in math, compared to 90 percent of white students. Eighth grade students receiving free or reduced lunches were 51 percent proficient in math in 2005-2006, compared to 76 proficient in 2009-2010.
Singleton questioned whether trustees and the district had an achievement plan, a question that garnered different responses from different board members. Some said the district had a plan, while others disagreed, and Singleton said that disagreement give the community a reason to wonder if closing the achievement gap is a priority.
“For this amount of time, my feeling would be if there were a concrete plan with strength and teeth behind it, lots of people around the country would know about Ann Arbor’s work and they would visit you for that work and you could be published in that work,” he said.
The district paid the Pacific Education Group $341,000 for their services as of last year. Information on how much they had been paid until the present time was not available Wednesday.
The difficulty in talking about racial issues isn’t limited to the school buildings, trustee Simone Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said during board meetings trustees will often defer to individual board members on topics such as economics, health issues or special education issues. However, she said she felt she and trustee Susan Baskett did not get the same treatment on matters of race.
“We have to have courageous conversations, and we have to be OK with talking about race,” Lightfoot said.
Baskett said she didn’t believe that the board was going to have a true conversation about race in the near future.
“We haven’t wanted to have this conversation, and we haven’t had it for eight years,” she said. “We have new board members and we may have it but I don’t think it’s gonna happen.”
School board president Deb Mexicotte said trustees are united in the cause to close the achievement gap, mentioning that during the superintendent interviews done earlier this year each trustee had said they’d like to have the gap closed in five years.
She said the board has made policy changes and stated she believed the district had made significant progress toward closing the achievement gap.
“This board has demonstrated through a number of avenues that we are dedicated to this work,” she said. “There has not been a time where we have discussed maybe we should not do this work next year.”
Singleton said the model he has given to the board, which calls for equity work to be done at the board and administration levels before transitioned down to school buildings with principals and teachers taking the lead, is working in some schools.
He said some principals have simply been handed a binder full of equity materials on their first day and told to get started. He said a district-wide equity plan would be needed to do any work on shrinking the achievement gap as a whole in order to allow new principals to have a framework to build on.
“We have to ask, what plan does the district have in place so that the plan doesn’t fall apart when leadership moves on?” he said.