While Georgia’s Department of Education takes aim at closing the achievement gap under Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) regulations, implementing measures to do so has been left to individual schools and districts.
Georgia was highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education when it approved six ESSA state plans in January, as the state focused on “schools making significant progress with traditionally underserved subgroups through its Closing Gaps indicator.” The charge to close the achievement gap, according to Georgia Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, came from feedback gathered during the drafting stage.
“We listened and heard that Georgians want a K-12 education system that supports the whole child, a system that produces students who are not just college- and career-ready, but ready for life,” Woods said in a statement.
CCRPI & Georgia’s Equity Plan
Unlike its predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ESSA allows for a certain flexibility in setting education benchmarks. Georgia set a long-term goal to close the achievement gap by 45 percent over the next 15 years with annual three percent increase targets. This objective is incorporated into the state’s accountability system, the College and Career Readiness Index (CCRPI).
Under CCRPI, the report card is streamlined to measure student growth in five specific areas, including “Closing Gaps,” which acknowledges schools that close achievement gaps. However, the goal compels schools and subgroups testing below standard to make greater progress than those who are proficient, so more attention and resources are needed.
As with many states, the wide achievement gap in Georgia stems from complex, often compounding social inequities. Georgia’s 2016 Equity Plan identifies two major avenues for inequity: a poverty gap and a minority gap. Data from the plan shows students of color and students in Title 1 schools perform, on average, worse than their peers outside of these subgroups. Putting this all together, about 80 percent of students in the state graduate from high school, roughly four percent below the national average.
While Georgia’s ESSA plan lays out targets and goals for the state to meet, actual measures for closing the gap are not explicitly stated. One independent group, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE), identified what they think might be a critical issue for Georgia’s school—and this is where the key to closing the gap may lie.
Early Intervention for Young Students is Crucial
The Partnership points to educational inequity as a major force to the achievement gap. Tackling inequity, from access to support programs to ensuring quality instruction, is paramount in closing the state’s achievement gap. Studies have found that early intervention for very young children is a significant way to begin closing achievement gaps, and Georgia has responded accordingly.
One approach to early intervention is addressing behavioral issues that may impact student growth through a statewide support and intervention strategy. To tackle this head on, Georgia created a Positive Behavior Support Unit to implement a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) framework.
A major goal of the PBIS strategy is establishing data analysis procedures at schools and districts:
Analysis of state longitudinal data showing the successes in discipline, achievement, and attendance from successful PBIS implementation does not currently exist. Its availability would encourage increased buy-in on multiple levels: from families, teachers, and administrators to local superintendents, state agency leaders, and legislators, by showing how PBIS is impacting school climate.
Georgia requires that all schools implement and utilize a data system “to identify school-wide, classroom, and individual student needs.” With comprehensive reports on student activity, teams can analyze this data to assess why certain behaviors transpire and then employ interventions designed to address needs.
In addition to early intervention processes, the state is analyzing how (and if) at-risk students are receiving instruction from qualified teachers. Under ESSA, the state provides local education agencies (LEA) with equity data “regarding the effectiveness, experience, and background of teachers.” LEAs then analyze district and school procedures to identify equity gaps and develop strategies that can address inequities.
This strategy intends to address disparities between experienced teachers serving Title I schools and schools with high rates of students of color. An example of this disparity comes from the Gainesville City School System, in which Superintendent Jeremy Williams saw some alarming results from the Georgia Milestones test. At all grade levels, Latino students outperformed African-American students. Williams saw that hiring practices could help address this achievement gap. Speaking with the Gainesville Times, he listed recruiting talented minority educators and stronger teacher development systems as priorities items to make a tangible change.
The issues facing Gainesville Schools are not an anomaly. Georgia’s Equity Plan sheds light on some alarming discrepancies in the state’s education system: for one, students in the highest minority and highest poverty quartiles had significantly higher percentages of first-year teachers. In turn, much of the state’s at-risk populations are taught by inexperienced teachers. Additionally, principal turnover is also higher in these populations, impacting top-down leadership. Since these diverse subgroups are underserved, the equity gap feeds into the achievement gap in the long run.
Implementing a System to Achieve District Goals
With implementation left to individual schools and districts, addressing equity problems like early intervention, providing access and support, and quality staffing can be a challenge. Of the many statewide initiatives, Georgia’s Systems of Continuous Improvement Plan, a schema that helps educators measure growth through data-driven assessment, recommends using data to “identify and commit to specific goals and strategies that address your needs.”
Implementing an assessment system like eduCLIMBER or DnA could be a good start. These platforms allow teachers to create a whole picture of their students to inform instruction and identify root causes of factors that may negatively impact student learning. Likewise, school leadership can make data-driven decisions on how talent and resources are mitigated in the long term.
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