Disrupting the Opportunity Gap

Inequity in public education has a long and persistent history in the United States. Progress to close these disparities associated with race, gender, economic status, community, and familial situations has been both slow and challenging.

As educators, one of the challenges we face is how we measure student success and what steps we take when we see significant differences in test scores.

It is common to read about “closing the achievement gap” — meaning end the disparities among students taking state-administered annual tests. When looked at through the lens of race and income levels we continue to see major gaps between historically marginalized populations and white students who are not economically disadvantaged.

When we focus on the test scores, we situate the problem as one with the student – if performance isn’t satisfactory, we assume that the issue is a lack of skill development.

Alternatively, the “opportunity gap” focuses on the ways in which public education systems create and sustain an unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities that contribute to student success. This perspective situates the problem as one with the system. We see this unfolding now as communities scramble to offer distance learning during COVID-19 school closures and grapple with learning from home for students who do not have devices or wifi sufficient for video platforms.

Working to minimize opportunity gaps requires significant change within our structural systems. For concerned parents, the rhetoric is often too divisive and the path to help incite widescale change can seem daunting.

So how do we face this challenge — as educators and parents? How do we help ensure that our children, their classmates, and their peers across Texas are granted the same opportunities? By recognizing the problem and mitigating inequities at the school level and in classroom practices.

Changes at this level are both tangible and profound.

At New Tech Network (NTN), our innovative project-based learning (PBL) school-wide approach, enabled with technology, recognizes and works to disrupt two crucial aspects of the opportunity gap:

  • The Culture Gap: Students of color and students in poverty are more likely to experience a school environment that isn’t safe, inclusive, or supportive.
  • The Instruction Gap: Students of color and students in poverty are more likely to experience rote, low level instruction that emphasizes memorization.

PBL done well can make a big difference by ensuring students regularly engage in authentic, complex thinking and problem-solving and experience a learning environment that is safe, inclusive, and emotionally supportive, leading them down a path to success that includes:

  • deep systemic work around adult beliefs and mindsets,
  • intensive capacity building to design quality learning experiences, and
  • explicit work to build empowering school cultures and effective leadership.

Two examples of results from this work include PTA campus schools in El Paso ISD and Memorial Early College High School in Comal ISD.

According to data from El Paso ISD, on all end-of-course exams for both the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years, EPISD New Tech Network students continue to outperform others. The first EPISD New Tech Network middle school data from the 2018-2019 academic year shows strong outcomes, including that New Tech Network students consistently outperform other students across all performance bands in reading and math for both sixth and seventh grades.

Results from Memorial Early College High School in Comal ISD are also compelling. The institution now has a TEA A-F Accountability score of “99 out of 100” in how well it prepares students for success in high school and after high school in college, a career, or the military. Additionally, nearly 100% of MECHS students have graduated with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in the past three years. This preparation translates, on average, into almost $50,000 in cost-savings for students and their parents.

To further disrupt the opportunity gap, it is critical to measure what matters. We should look to empower teachers in elementary, middle, and high school levels with professional development and resources that help transition to this different approach. Specifically tailored content to assess student work to better prepare them to meet college-ready criteria. Rubrics that assess student skills in collaboration, oral and written communications, and student agency are effective and necessary for this approach to succeed.

Ensuring that schools make complex problem-solving accessible to all students in safe, inclusive, and emotionally supportive environments will help better prepare our most vulnerable students for opportunities to thrive now and in their future endeavors.

My visits with schools across our network consistently show students who display a palpable sense of curiosity and joyful learning. Their skills, scores, and graduation rates also affirm this approach works.

When we partner with schools and parents, and align all levels of the education system around a common vision — grounded in creating equitable learning opportunities for all students — great things happen.