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Teachers College Conference on Education Equity

Teachers College held the fourth annual Equity Symposium, “Comprehensive Educational Equity: Overcoming the Socioeconomic Barriers to School Success,” spearheaded by attorney and Professor of Law and Educational Practice, Michael Rebell. The purpose of this year’s symposium was to confront the reality that to overcome achievement gaps and promote academic proficiency for all children, we must tackle the full range of opportunity gaps faced by children from backgrounds of poverty, including health, home, and community-related barriers to learning, as well as inequities in academic opportunities. Some of the nation’s leading experts convened to review current research and examine the experiences of demonstration projects. The conference explored, among many topics, how we move from pilots to policy with specific proposals for bringing to scale efforts to provide access to necessary resources and comprehensive services. [Editor]

By Marisa Suescun

How do you eliminate (not just “close,” but truly eradicate) that most prevalent and persistent of challenges to educational equity, the achievement gap? This question—at once decades-old and urgently current—sparked bright dialogue amongst the powerhouse panel of educators that confronted it, in the Promising Delivery Models Roundtable moderated by Pedro Noguera recently.

Noguera, a professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, noted, “Since we don’t have the opposing voice on this panel… I’ll have to play that role.”

To be sure, the four panelists—a big city superintendent, CEO of a big city non profit, president of a small-town community foundation, and state university Board chair—agreed on certain fundamentals, namely that the achievement gap can and should be tackled by social services, the earlier in a child’s life the better. But the discussion brought forth some subtle and instructive points of disagreement on how to approach that task.

In different ways, the panelists expressed that achieving educational equity requires quality, sustained, and expensive efforts in school and beyond—evoking a broad, ambitious definition of public education that includes such services as pre-natal parent education, adult GED classes, after-school enrichment programs that keep schools open until 8 or 9 pm, and rigorous literacy instruction for children under 5.

“I believe that all the supplemental services cannot make up for a lousy K-12 education,” said Geoffrey Canada, CEO and President of Harlem Children’s Zone, a 20-year-old non-profit, community-based organization that offers social and educational programs to children and families. Harlem Zone has been widely regarded as a promising model of comprehensive education reform that focuses on the fundamental challenges facing communities. “We try to keep the kids who are falling from falling faster,” Canada said.

“It’s not schools versus after-school… that’s a false dichotomy,” agreed Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago public schools. Duncan has pioneered an initiative to open community schools in low-income neighborhoods, an initiative that has resulted in 7 years of rising test scores and a reduced rate of children bouncing from school to school. “There is not a major city in the United States where there isn’t at least a one-third dropout rate. We desperately need to improve what happens during the day.”

Carl Hayden, Chancellor Emeritus and Chairman of the Board of the State University of New York, thinks that the most important educational work—and the origin of the achievement gap—happens before a child sets foot in a formal school.

“The great, unexamined period in this equation is (ages) 0 to 5,” Hayden said. “We should put all our resources into getting all kids prepared for kindergarten.”

Hayden chairs the Chemung County School Readiness Project, which is directed by another panelist, Randi Hewit, President of the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes. The School Readiness Project focuses on providing pre-K programs and literacy instruction for young children in upstate New York’s Chemung County.

“We’re on track in 5 years to cut the number of kids in Chemung County unprepared for kindergarten by half,” Hewit said.

Each of the panelists spoke with ease and clarity about the measurable effects of their work on children and communities. Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, estimates that it requires about three years, at $50,000 per year, to move a middle school child who is academically behind to grade level. “We’re paying that right now for programs,” he said. “But it never approaches the price we pay when we lock kids up.”

But the focus on measurable outcomes can be misguiding, Canada warned. “So much of the discussion is around academic outcomes that I think people will make poor choices… by cutting the ‘extra’ stuff,” he said.

Hayden, the SUNY Board chairmen, said that the outcomes-oriented approach allows funders to distinguish effective programs from ineffective ones—a distinction especially necessary in lean economic times. Hayden said that funders would look favorably on the excellent track record of organizations like Harlem Children’s Zone. “They’re still going to fund results,” he said.

“Yes, that’s what I’m worried about,” Canada replied. “This is what we do to poor families. When you or I send a kid to soccer, we don’t expect his math scores to go up. We expect him to get better in soccer. For poor kids, if you send them to chess, they also want their English scores to go up,” Canada said, evoking a round of audience applause and laughter.

The panelists—and many of the several hundred audience members in attendance, if judging by their applause and nods of agreement—all advocated for increased spending on education in the upcoming presidential term, claiming that the deficit spending is worth the investment in the infrastructure of the future.

“As a country, we have lost our way,” said Duncan, who advocates for schools to be open 11-12 hours per day. “There needs to be reciprocity—yes, government must do more and so must individual parents and families.” #



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