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Close Opportunity Gaps Without Gimmicks: Four Lessons From Exemplary Public High Schools

A group of diverse high school students stand in front of a school building, holding up a blue banner with white and yellow lettering: "A schools of opportunity for all students: Rainier Beach High School."

Since the turn of the century, most discussions about school policy have revolved around test-score gaps, without attention to the opportunity gaps that produced them. A large body of research during the No Child Left Behind era documented the harms caused by focusing school efforts exclusively on raising test scores. These harms included cheating scandals, gaming the system by focusing on students at the proficiency “bubble,” pushing out low-scoring students to hide their achievement from the high-stakes system, a narrowed curriculum, and teaching focused on test-taking skills and test preparation, all resulting in a sacrifice of authentic, engaging, well-rounded learning experiences.

Recent years have brought a greater understanding that achievement gaps result from opportunity gaps. If we attend to the latter, we can address the former. This is even more important in the wake of the pandemic as districts and states across the country are grappling with how to interpret and address low test scores, generally framed as “learning loss.” Will they revert to the use of test scores as a basis for sanctions that lead to gaming, exclusions, and narrowing of learning opportunities? Or will they use scores to increase opportunities to learn, as the New York state comptroller recently urged in a report that highlights the need for schools and districts to “swiftly invest significant resources” to address learning loss for the state’s students in greatest need.

We witnessed the benefits that result from shifting the focus from test-score gaps to opportunity gaps in our research into Schools of Opportunity. The Schools of Opportunity project, housed at University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center, has identified more than 50 public high schools that are using evidence-based practices to address achievement gaps by improving opportunities to learn. Based on a set of 10 research-based criteria, these high schools were recognized as exemplars that show a way forward for policymakers and other schools.

The evidence-based practices used in Schools of Opportunity have positive impacts that go beyond improvements in standard measures of achievement like test scores. For example, these schools are improving school climate by moving toward restorative practices that can reduce suspension rates and improve attendance—an especially important consideration for students of color and students with disabilities, who are excluded from school at higher rates than their peers. They also use assessment practices that are responsive and engaging—like performance assessments—that can promote student–teacher relationships, deeper learning competencies, social-emotional skills, and college and career readiness. And they offer culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy, which positively impacts graduation, attendance, and college enrollment. Many outcomes, including test scores, improve when schools close opportunity gaps.

These schools are improving school climate by moving toward restorative practices that can reduce suspension rates and improve attendance—an especially important consideration for students of color and students with disabilities.

For example, the first Schools of Opportunity criterion—which all applications were required to address—concerns the importance of providing challenging, engaging, and supported learning opportunities to all students. Recognized schools typically were committed to detracking, or “universal acceleration,” whereby schools end the stratifying practice of rationing their best curriculum and pedagogy. The most studied school among our recognized Schools of Opportunity is South Side High School in New York. Along with the studies linked above, we have documented South Side’s significant increases in a wide variety of outcome measures, including improved achievement, causally linked to the district’s detracking reform, and by South Side’s expansion of its accelerated mathematics and International Baccalaureate (IB) program to all students.

The recently published book Schools of Opportunity: 10 Research-Based Models of Equity in Action tells the stories of South Side and eight other exemplary public high schools. Thinking across those stories, we’ve identified four key lessons that can inform current conversations about how to best address declines in test score–based achievement:

Lesson #1: School policies and practices should be grounded in a core understanding that societal inequities drive opportunity gaps and therefore achievement gaps.

Food and housing insecurity; access to resources such as health care, public transportation, and high-speed internet; neighborhood resources and safety—and so much more—are all distributed unequally in ways that disadvantage marginalized groups of students. Experiences and resources outside of school—positive and negative—impact students’ achievement in school. Of course, the main policy lesson here concerns the urgent need to address the societal inequalities. But within schools, there are many lessons as well. For example, test scores should be understood not as measures of intelligence but as measures of a student’s previous opportunities to learn—which are often stratified by race and socioeconomic status. Rich, authentic learning experiences often occur outside of school and are disproportionately accessible to students from wealthier families. Students living in poverty are also likely to experience stressors associated with poverty that impact well-being and academic performance. When school address these inequalities, they reduce opportunity gaps.

Lesson #2: The opportunity gaps that exist in schools are well studied, and we know how to close them.

The book profiles nine different Schools of Opportunity that show the way. For example, Nebraska’s Lincoln High School serves a very diverse community, in part because the city has long been a settlement location for refugees. In 2017 when we studied the school, students at Lincoln High spoke over 30 different languages. Most (65%) of Lincoln’s student body qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. The school offers a powerful example of the strategies used to close opportunity gaps. Among them:

  • Create a positive school climate through a culture of inclusion and belonging: The school’s educators embraced diversity, building on the extraordinary experiences and strengths of its students and their families. Since 2016, it has held an annual bilingual career fair, which connects students and their families to employers who value workers who speak multiple languages. The administration also embraces a wide variety of student organizations, including many that we routinely see in high schools, but also affinity groups like the Zomi/Karenni Club for students of Thai and Burmese heritage. The flags from many countries that line the school’s entrance celebrate the diversity of students’ cultures and backgrounds. Lincoln’s Spanish for Heritage Learners program builds on the strengths of students who speak Spanish at home to prepare them for the Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish Language placement test.
  • Ensure strong student, family, and community engagement and well-being: To strengthen ties between the school, families, and the community, Lincoln has a full-time parent and community engagement specialist and a parental advisory committee. The schools’ partnerships connect families and students to group counseling, private therapy, and physical health services.
  • Replace harsh discipline practices with positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS): A few years ago, Lincoln moved from a disciplinary system that often relied on suspensions to a system rooted in PBIS. The result was a 23% decrease in disciplinary referrals and a 60% decrease in in-school suspensions, which studies find are linked to dropout rates.
  • Provide rigorous curriculum for all students: IB and AP classes are open to all students who want to take them, and students who choose to enroll in those courses are supported by a number of programs that help them succeed in these classes.
  • Offer expanded and enriched learning opportunities: Lincoln stays open late on weekdays and remains open on Saturdays, enabling students to access the internet. During these times, school staff and tutors are available to help students with coursework, scholarship applications, and job applications.
  • Provide meaningful professional development: Teachers at Lincoln are supported through a strong Professional Learning Community model; a team of teachers lead professional development sessions, and there is an open-door observation policy for teachers to learn from each other’s instructional practices.

Lesson #3: One reason the vast majority of schools don’t adopt research-based policies and practices is the absence of supports and incentives.

In fact, the larger educational system often undermines such reform efforts. Many of the exemplary schools featured in the Schools of Opportunity book are closing opportunity gaps in spite of the policy context created by federal, state, and district rules and laws; more schools would follow if those policies became supportive. Instead of systems of test-based accountability and oppressive curriculum bans, policies could support and incentivize the sorts of project-based learning and authentic assessments seen at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx and the sorts of culturally relevant curriculum developed with the leadership of students that we saw at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College high school in Denver. Instead of diverting more resources to school hardening efforts, policies could support and incentivize the sorts of practices that create a positive climate supportive of students’ well-being by investing in the physical, social, and academic dimensions of school culture and by intentionally shifting away from punitive and exclusionary discipline practices, as was done at Revere High School in Massachusetts. If education policies were designed to help schools implement opportunity gap–closing practices, the landscape of what is possible—and even what is likely—would change dramatically.

Lesson #4: Our expectations for schools are not matched by the resources and supports provided to students and their teachers.

Schools like those profiled in the new book have been tasked with addressing the learning impacts of inequitable social and economic systems without the adequate resources to do so. Here in the United States, we have come to expect accountability to work in only one direction. Students are accountable to teachers, who are accountable to school leaders, who are accountable to district officials, who are accountable to their states—with the federal government ultimately setting rules for state accountability. But such unidirectional accountability cannot be effective if the demands are not accompanied by supports. Teachers must support students, and teachers in turn need the support of their school and district leaders as well as those at state and federal levels who decide whether resources will be available for the classroom. A system grounded in reciprocal accountability would facilitate school improvement far beyond the present degree. The schools whose stories we tell in Schools of Opportunity are exceptional because they’re inspirational but also because they’re rare. But it needn’t be so.

Here in the United States, we have come to expect accountability to work in only one direction. Students are accountable to teachers, who are accountable to school leaders, who are accountable to district officials, who are accountable to their states. ... But such unidirectional accountability cannot be effective if the demands are not accompanied by supports.

Practices such as those described here often require a great deal of work, and they don’t yield magical results. Poverty and other outside-of-school inequalities still predict average test-score outcomes to a significant—though often reduced—degree; political rhetoric notwithstanding, our schools alone are not able to be “great equalizers” without policies that address poverty, homelessness, and other social inequalities. But schools like Lincoln can still be remarkable places that provide crucial supports and learning opportunities for their students. And they can—and do—still change lives.