An Achievement Gap Presentation on the Past & Present

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The Achievement Gap Taskforce (AGT) meeting on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 was a glimpse into Connecticut’s educational goals that have been established in both the past and present. The meeting began with introductions to Elaine Zimmerman, the Director of Commission on Children, Paul Freeman, the Superintendent of Guilford Public Schools, David Kennedy, the C.O.O. of United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, and Stephen Tracy, the Superintendent for the Department of Children & Families (DCF). The meeting’s goal and criteria was to address achievement gap disparities in Connecticut.

Then there was a snap-change in the meeting’s agenda. The “Presentation” by Stephen Tracy was pushed to the beginning, and the “update” on the AGT report was moved towards the end. However, it turned out to be a dual-presentation, one of which was on what’s to come (DCF), and what’s going to be done (AGT), blending aims for the present with goals created in the past to bridge Connecticut’s achievement gap.

Steven Tracy launch his presentation with DCF’s mission statement: “To promote learning, school success and personal fulfillment for children and young people whose life experiences have included trauma, family disruption or involvement with the juvenile justice system.” Tracy then followed this statement up with the challenges of their mission by addressing how many of the students they engage are at the bottom half of Connecticut’s achievement gap. Tracy outlined his presentation through four components, which consisted of: Pilot Programs, Academic Tracking, Case Planning, and DCF Facility planning.

Tracy delved into how their Pilot Programs are geared towards increasing the academic achievement of students who are in state custody. Tracy explained how they have hired coordinators in the three cities of Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven where legislation has provided funding, conducted listening session to hear about positive and negative academic experiences in school, and established liaisons with school leadership teams in these three cities where the program has been implemented. Tracy furthered that the next steps are: to get these newly hired coordinators into the field so that they can identify students who are in need of improvement, work with school leaders, and craft interventions that will provide more opportunities for these students. Tracy ended this segment by saying that he hopes to have more to show by the end of the program on, June 30, 2015.

In regard to tracking the academic progress of all children who are in state custody, Tracy announced that they have creating a data sharing agreement with the DOE, and are beginning to gather data for all children enrolled in DCF. However, he mentioned that they are going to need to extend that arrangement, so that it also includes attendance, academic achievement and discipline data as well.

Turning our attention to Case Planning, Tracy notes that this aspect has taken up most of their time and attention. He furthers that any child in state custody requires a preliminary case plan that’s used to specify educational goals and performance for each individual student. Tracy moves on to say that they “have also implemented, or are implementing a new process for getting records,” through a new protocol that’s specific in terms of students’ attendance, achievement, behavior and stability.

Lastly, Tracy mentions how they will inspect their own DCF facilities and develop a report of the educational needs for all of the students who attend their schools, and proposes to return at the end of the school year with a completed update and preview of their results. Tracy concluded his presentation with how their program is focused on the “issue of engagement and motivation [because it] is generally overlooked in our school reform efforts in Connecticut.” Tracy’s presentation provided an insightful vision for things to come, and its adagio progress and process seemed to stir a little skepticism due to the overwhelming challenges of its goals.

The meeting then shifted its lead to the voice of David Kennedy, who introduced AGT’s newly published strategy to eliminate the achievement gap in a Drafted Master Plan. This plan outlines, explains and identifies 17 key ingredients that are divided into two major categories of: conditions inside and outside of school, which will, in theory, bridge educational gaps. Kennedy explains that this Master Plan develops a “recipe, a kind of very poor analogy, but I do enjoy cooking … of all the components that are going to be needed to close and end the achievement gap in Connecticut.” The Master Plan includes teacher and administrative preparation guides and practices, grids on results and measurements, plan and policy recommendations, among many more strategies aimed at bridging the achievement gap.

Throughout the rollout of AGT’s Master Plan, I couldn’t help but relate it to Whatever It Takes, because the ideas and structures seemed to bounce back and forth among specialized education plans and central schooling models, practices and approaches, along the similar veins of Geoffrey Canada‘s thinking. Kennedy stressed how their plan’s “focus is not education reform, [it’s] about ending the achievement gap.” The plan is to intervene with families and provide early care and education, much like HCZ. However, Kennedy furthers that the “achievement and opportunity gap exists because of economic disparities,” which Connecticut has yet to report on. The plan describes the conditions that need to change inside of school, such as training teachers to address the achievement gap and how to engage English language learners, a curriculum that is designed to close educational gaps, and an investigation into the role of time over the course of both school days and summer vacations. These notions are coupled with the conditions that will need to change outside of school, which include early care and education, family engagement, affordable housing and addressing the issues and challenges of poverty.

As the presentation-update came to a closure, it’s emphasized that the plan isn’t about education reform or failures in schoolhouses, it’s about recognizing that the achievement gap is a statewide and communitywide concern, and addresses and acknowledges the academic challenges in different communities through a broader lens. The AGT was very proud to announce the publication of their newly scripted plan because it was a product of hundreds of meetings over the past couple of years that includes four years of data input. Their ideas were very refreshing and uplifting, but will be interesting to see if this paper-based plan develops into Connecticut’s systemwide educational praxis.

Education Committee: Achievement Gap Taskforce, Tuesday, March 4, 2014.