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School 'achievement gap' stubbornly persists

Close to two-thirds of schools in the nation's biggest cities are failing to close the achievement gap that persists between low-income students and their wealthier counterparts, a new study has found.

Of the top 100 U.S. cities in the study, 67 have "massive" achievement gaps while 25 have large gaps and just eight have gaps that are measured as small, according to The Education Equality Index, a ranking tool used to review city education data in 35 states. It noted that such a gap either "stagnated or grew between 2011 and 2014."

Just two of 10 low-income students nationwide go to schools where the achievement gap is being closed, marking a persistent problem in public education and one that the Obama administration has identified as crucial, asking states to devise remedies for improvement.

“The Education Equality Index illustrates the urgent need for low-income families to have access to the same quality of education as more affluent families -- in other words, zip code should not mean destiny,” said Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, which partnered with the non-profit Education Cities to create the index (www.educationequalityindex.org).

New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, Texas and Tennessee topped the list of states with the highest ranking, while Nebraska, Rhode Island and Nevada marked the highest "pace of change" in closing the achievement gap. Cities cited for making notable gains included Norfolk, Virginia, Denver, Omaha, Nebraska, and Memphis.

The 10 major cities with the smallest education achievement gaps were Hialeah, Florida, Gilbert, Arizona, Miami, El Paso, Texas, Irvine, California, San Francisco, Scottsdale, Arizona, Garland, Texas, New York City and Chandler, Arizona, the study found.

Concerns over the academic performance of low-income students has plagued educators who say the nation must do better with learning equity.

"This has been a problem since the beginning of the public educator system in America," said Starlee Coleman, a co-founder of the communications firm SchoolForward. "There are markers that indicate whether or not a kid is going to have a great shot at school or not. 

"This issue is not unique to America, whether students are urban, rural and poor - it's a problem everywhere," Coleman added. "And we have to focus on it, certainly, because having access to a good school and getting a decent education is the only thing that can change a person's trajectory in life."

There was a bit of good news in the study. Ninety percent of the cities studied had individual schools that were having solid success in closing the gap. Coleman said districts must take a hard look at determining what reforms have worked and have the political will to "ruffle some feathers" to improve, a difficult task that involves educators, labor and lawmakers coming together.

She pointed to Florida as an example that other states ought to study, saying that a series of reforms enacted in the early 2000s where schools are graded on performance has helped many become more accountable. "Everybody knows what a C means, a D mean and and F means," Coleman said. "And parents don't want their kids in a F school."

The Sunshine State also created financial incentives that allowed schools to focus on the lower end of the achievement spectrum, she added. "They would give schools more money if they were able to bring up the grades of students in the lowest 25th percentile, to bring those poorest students up to the higher performing kids."

Teachers, she added, were given bonuses for their efforts including encouraging more minority students to take Advanced Placement classes.

"All of this resulted in Florida having one of the lowest achievement gaps in the country," she said. "The traditionally lower performing population outperformed the statewide average in almost a dozen other states. When you think about that, it is truly amazing. Poor black kids and poor Hispanic kids are performing better than the entire statewide average in a state like California."

One caveat for schools, Coleman said, is that achievement gains must be focused on across the board, so every student is expected to improve.

"I don't think it's appropriate or good for closing an achievement gap without a focus on raising achievement for all children. In both Arizona and New Mexico, for example, one in three kids don't read or do math at grade level. It's not great that the achievement is so low."