Campus News

November 3, 2011

How to close the achievement gap and leave no child behind

In an age when "No Child Left Behind" is leaving children behind, academics, policymakers and practitioners must emerge from their respective silos and share best practices to close the achievement gap, says Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University.

Noguera, an urban sociologist, spoke Oct. 31 about "The Role of Research and the Politics of School Reform: Why We Don't Use What We Know to Improve Our Nation's Schools."

Joining Noguera was a panel of six principals from DeKalb County middle and high schools, who are convening this year under Teaching in the Urban South (TITUS), an initiative of Emory College's Division of Educational Studies.

The pilot program – a community-university partnership -- draws from the ingenuity of black educators during the time of school segregation, when leaders built connections across universities, churches and communities to compensate for meager resources.

"All we are doing is taking this historical model of connectivity and recreating it," says Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Educational Studies Vanessa Siddle Walker, who helps coordinate TITUS.

Nominated by their schools, TITUS fellows engage in programming throughout the year, including three day-long workshops with Emory faculty over the summer. Working on a shoestring budget, the program offers the principals a "safe intellectual space" to exchange critical information, notes Walker.

Sheryl Croft, a doctoral student in educational studies and one of the first students to help desegregate Emory in the early 1960s, serves as the TITUS program director. A dozen other doctoral students lend their support, including offering workshops in SAT preparation and college application essay-writing to TITUS schools.

Test-obsessed culture

Noguera's recent lecture at Woodruff Library saw an overflow crowd, including area university professors, teachers, parents and students.

"You almost never see us all in the same room together," marveled Walker.

Noguera began by criticizing policymakers for their emphasis on test scores as a key to student success. 

"We keep thinking that there is a test we can come up with that will solve the problem," he said. "This is not a policy or strategy. This is a blame game against the people who are the least served, but who can benefit the most from change."

Citing the recent Atlanta Public Schools' cheating scandal, Noguera said: "When you put this much test pressure on professionals, good people will cheat."

But all stakeholders must be held accountable, he added. Teachers' unions need to police their members, parents must become active participants in their children's educational lives and administrators should establish a dialogue with local schools that are getting it right, he said.  

"The number one challenge to higher achievement in this country is poverty and inequality," he said.

Equal access

Nearly one-quarter of American children live below the poverty line. As the "only institution in this country that guarantees access to all," the public school offers children one to two nourishing meals a day, heat in the winter, adult supervision and the hope of climbing out of a vicious cycle of poverty, incarceration and unemployment, Noguera said.

While charter schools have struck a positive chord, 90 percent of public school children don't attend them, he added.

"We need to stop teaching to the test and start teaching students to be critical and lifelong learners," said Thaddeus Dixon, principal of Miller Grove Middle School in DeKalb County and a TITUS fellow. Dixon noted that one of his math teachers arranges monthly parent-student tutorials to keep parents engaged.

Plagued by high dropout rates and lagging math and reading skills compared to their international peers, American students deserve a more substantial investment in their future, Noguera said.

School report cards based on test scores paint a dismal picture, yet school accomplishments go unnoticed, said Walker. At Champion Middle School in Stone Mountain, for instance, students tend a community garden and then deliver the fresh produce to area food banks.

The next TITUS fellows event is scheduled for this spring, when educators, business leaders and community members will gather on a fellow's home turf — Cedar Grove High School in south DeKalb County.

Noguera delivered the Dora Helen Skypek Invited Lecture, named for the late Professor Emeritus of Educational Studies at Emory. The talk, part of the New Frontiers in Race & Difference Lecture Series, was sponsored by the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, the Division of Educational Studies, and the departments of Sociology and African American Studies.

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