Downey, et al. (2009) described the persistent and chronic nature of achievement gaps in our educational system as “the most complex and compelling educational dilemma facing schools in the 21st century.” Since the passage of NCLB in 2001—a law at its very essence designed to erase decades of inequality and futility born out in the quantitative and anecdotal data—very little, if any, progress has been made to eradicate the gaps between white, typically-abled students and their peers from historically underserved and underperforming groups: students of color, students learning English as a second language, students with disabilities, and students living under the weight of low socioeconomic circumstances. In order to tackle this time-worn challenge, we must abandon the idea that one single thing, or even a few things thoughtfully combined, will narrow the gaps. Instead, we must first acknowledge that the problem is multi-causal, deeply rooted, and multidimensional—a complex problem that requires complex solutions; solutions that when applied simultaneously yield results that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Catapult Learning just recently hosted educational leaders from across the country at its annual Leadership Institute (CLLI) in San Antonio, Texas. This year’s institute theme was “Home Grown Excellence – Growth Mindset as a Catalyst for Organizational Change.” Participants had the opportunity to deeply explore mindsets within themselves, develop their own growth mindsets and habits as ever-evolving professionals, and in doing so, work to become better at creating contexts that help adult and youth learners thrive. Conference presenters shared the latest research behind best practices for supporting organizational growth by working to unlock fixed mindsets; how to better prioritize, manage, and delegate; achieving improved student outcomes for all; and promoting sustainability. All of these conditions serve as a good starting point for this discussion. But let’s dig a little deeper.

My presentation, with my colleague Debbie Whitfill, Catapult Learning Executive Director of School Partnerships, took on the perennial challenge of narrowing achievement gaps. We explored the need for urgency and action in addressing various conditions that might be perpetuating achievement gaps, with expectations and mindsets perhaps being most paramount. We also introduced a set of strategies and key competencies designed to accelerate student learning and encouraged leaders to advance their organizations by applying some of these high-leverage practices to their daily work.

Truth be told, it’s not enough to simply create the conditions for all students in our schools to demonstrate growth year over year, because these behaviors simply maintain the gaps. Instead, learning organizations need to do “both/and” to ensure that all students achieve at least one year of academic growth, while at the same time accelerate the learning rates of those students performing below their expected level. Only when schools can create these conditions will the gaps begin to narrow.

Seems obvious, yes? But if it were easy, we might have seen greater progress in the data over the last nearly 15 years. And as Gloria Ladson-Billings so eloquently put it during her 2007 speech at the Urban Sites Network Conference in Washington, DC, the term “racial achievement gap” unfairly constructs students as “defective and lacking” and “admonishes them that they need to catch up.” Instead, she proposed that the term “education debt” moves the discourse to a place that holds us all accountable. So how did we suggest that we begin to repay this debt?

Obviously it was a bit of a fool’s errand to purport that we could solve this dilemma during a 90-minute workshop. But Debbie and I, like Mike Schmoker in his books on focus, do believe that progress can be made in schools where leaders concentrate on what’s most important, stripping away those often distracting and superfluous activities that are not both student-centered and results-oriented. We concentrated our exploration in the following key areas:

  • Cultivate a culture and learning environment that promotes a growth mindset in students and adults;
  • Develop a well-crafted, laser-focused curriculum;
  • Strive for “mastery learning” within a common lesson framework; and
  • Align all supplementary programs, resources, and activities designed to support the unique learning needs of students most at risk with the curriculum.

A school’s culture is manifested in the collective habits, rituals, and traditions of the children and adults who function within it. In an environment where staff members routinely decide that a particular individual or group may not be capable, there will not be openness to new information to the contrary. Overcoming a fixed mindset—one in which there is little belief in students’ ability to acquire new and complex skills, master content, or engage and persist in learning activities—will be nearly impossible to overcome. A deliberate effort to foster a culture underpinned by a growth mindset, one supported by research on neuroscience and brain elasticity, will create the conditions for students to realize accelerated growth, greater confidence, and a belief that through their efforts and the support of educators, they can develop their abilities. These conditions serve as “the incubator” in which the remaining actions will have the greatest impact.

Perhaps next important is the academic glue of the learning organization: the curriculum. What’s in it? Does it incorporate and tightly align the concepts and skills that are taught with those that are tested, particularly those that the school’s and the students’ success are measured against? Does the written curriculum serve adequately as both the resource and the roadmap for ensuring successful student outcomes? It is important to note that high-stakes assessments— love, despise, or tolerate them—essentially define the nature of performance. We have to strive to achieve deep parallelism between the written, taught, and tested curriculum if we hope to promote successful student outcomes. Think back to Schmoker – focus. It must be present in the curriculum in order to ensure that teachers are crystal clear on what they’re teaching, why they’re teaching it, and how they’ll know when their students “get it.”

So that takes us to a deeper dive into what is being taught, because an outcome-oriented learning experience begins with the end in mind, or the learning objective. Ensuring that the focal point of the lesson, or “the what,” is clearly defined and can therefore be grasped and acquired by all students is an essential component of the written, taught, and assessed curriculum. During our session I coined the term “expliciticity”—and challenged participants to examine whether the objectives their teachers and students use to inform learning experiences clearly lay out anticipated outcomes: under what conditions and to what depth of knowledge the students will be able to demonstrate acquisition of the targeted concept, process, knowledge or skill, and lastly, whether there is a clear understanding of the expected degree of mastery. Learning organizations would be well served to fine tune their practices around articulating clear and student-friendly learning objectives, and designing learning opportunities that clearly lay out a path for getting there.

Which brings me to the “getting there.” Simply put, all students would be well served if teachers in every school and every classroom designed learning experiences that strived for “mastery learning” within a common lesson framework. To this end, Catapult Learning offers an instructional model that is research-based and time-tested, and one that maximizes Academic Learning Time while building student independence and competence through the gradual release of responsibility. This model provides a structure and common language for organizing and discussing teaching and learning in a school. These conditions make it easier for teachers to design and deliver consistent, vertically and horizontally aligned lessons, share resources and ideas, and provide predictable structures and expectations for students. It also provides the framework within which leaders can serve as effective instructional leaders.

Lastly and perhaps most critically, given that we’re focused on accelerating the achievement of those students who are already behind, is the need to align all supplementary programs, resources, and activities designed to support the unique learning needs of students most at risk with the curriculum. Whether using some sort of multi-tiered system of supports, or perhaps designing intervention blocks where the students can receive small-group intervention, the same principles that apply to the core tier 1 instruction must apply to the interventions that we use with those students who have fallen behind: activities must be outcome-oriented using methodologies and resources that are research-based and designed to meet the specific need of the students being served. Schools would be well advised to regularly assess not only the quality of their small-group instruction and intervention, but also the quality and suitability of the resources being utilized, in order to verify effectiveness.

There are so many other strategies that could be offered: offering high-quality extended learning opportunities after school and during the summer, designing personalized learning plans, ensuring the cultural competency of all staff, marshalling community resources, etc. But I contend that student outcomes would be bolstered if schools would simply focus on the few strategies I’ve highlighted above. Schools can play a critical sociopolitical role in either changing or perpetuating patterns of privilege and inequality—and I believe these actions would facilitate change. Schools can be places of tremendous promise and opportunity when organized to ensure the success of all students.

Additional Resources:

Blankstein, Alan M., Pedro Noguera, Lorena Kelly, and Desmond Tutu. (2015). Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Dweck, Carol S. “Mind Sets and Equitable Education.” Principal Leadership (2010): n. pag. Print.

Fisher, C. W., & Berliner, D. C. (Eds.). (1985). Perspectives on instructional time. New York: Longman.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools.” 2007 Urban Sites Network Conference. Washington, DC. Apr. 2007. National Writing Project. Web