By JULIE B. MAGLIO
The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) has given the directive to school districts to close the “achievement gap.”
In 2015, FDOE aimed to reduce achievement gaps by one-third by 2019-2020. FDOE statistics show disparities between African American/White; Hispanic/White; Economically disadvantaged/ Non Economically Disadvantaged; Students with disabilities/ Students without disabilities; English Language Learners/ Non-English Language Learners. The disparities existed within English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science & Social Studies.
On their website, FDOE states, “It is essential that all students are provided an opportunity to achieve their highest academic, professional and life goals regardless of race/ethnicity, disability, economic status, or native language. Florida is working hard to ensure that each and every student has this opportunity by improving the performance of all students while also closing the achievement gap through the implementation of system-level strategies and by measuring and tracking key performance metrics.”
In September 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, further information was brought to light about another type of gap in learning: the ‘rigor gap.’ The study by Florida Council of 100 examined 3 years of FDOE data and found that nearly 75% of high school English 2 students and over 50% of Algebra I students who failed the End of Course Exams actually earned passing grades in the course (C or higher). In English 2 over 33% of students who failed the EOC earned a classroom grade of B or higher. 12% of Algebra I students who failed the EOC exam earned a B or higher in the course.
“Our analysis concludes that if teachers, leaders, and administrators hold students accountable throughout the school year for the standards they’ll be evaluated on at the end of the year, their grades and test scores will be closely aligned,” said Chris Corr, Chair of the Council of 100. “The rigor gap we see instead indicates the contrary, the result being that students are less prepared for success at the postsecondary level or in the workplace.”
The study surmises that the pandemic has likely exacerbated the rigor gap “after months of lowered academic expectations and accountability resulting from the disruptive spring  e-learning experience.”
Richard Corcoran, Florida’s Commissioner of Education stated,
“It’s been said we can love someone into mediocrity, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now more important than ever to care to give a quality education that is driven by high expectations to each and every student in Florida. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated gaps in student achievement, so it is imperative that all students, especially low-income students, students with special needs, English Language Learners, and other struggling students are given the supports and honest learning feedback to achieve their individualized educational dreams.”
Corcoran lists items that Florida is doing to close the rigor gap: “...record investments in teacher compensation to ensure that every child can have a great teacher, ensuring that every child’s education is aligned to great curriculum flowing from Florida’s new B.E.S.T. standards, ensuring that parents have increasingly robust learning options to choose from, and that students have meaningful opportunities to connect lifelong learning skills with high-demand college and career pathways requiring a rigorous high school experience.”
In order to address the ‘achievement gap’ or ‘equity gap,’ terms used interchangeably by the Hernando County School District, certain programs have been introduced.
The school district has been using the Crucial Conversations training program for a number of years, but new to the program on Jan. 26, 2021 was the add-on called ‘Unconscious Bias.’ According to the Jan. 26 workshop presentation, the first group of staff members were to receive Crucial Conversations/ Unconscious Bias training on Feb. 12, 2021 and throughout the upcoming summer.
According to the agenda item Executive Summary, ESSER/CARES Act funds would cover a total of five trainers from VitalSmarts to facilitate on-site professional learning in Unconscious Bias/Crucial Conversations, which is “a modified Crucial Conversations training focusing primarily on equity in education.” The funds came from a Title 1 grant of $47,530.00 for 209 Crucial Conversations training manuals and ESSER/CARES Act funds ($60,269.40 for 132 Unconscious Bias training manuals and the professional service fee).
According to Angela Shepard, School District Communications Specialist, Equity in Education training from Franklin Covey was offered during the February 12, 2021 training session.
Shepard writes in response to an information request, “Franklin Covey's professional development "The Impact Journey: Equity in Education," which includes the cost of consultation and participation guides, and appropriate shipping costs, will be funded. This equity training will be an opportunity for select teachers and administrators to examine how they form their student expectations, how their behaviors communicate their expectations, and how these behaviors then impact their students. At the close of the equity training, teachers will be able to focus on their circle of influence, increase their self-awareness about how their respective life experiences impact their interactions with students, communicate their high expectations for all students, and build authentic relationships with students in order to support successful learning. This training supports the work of the Achievement Gap committee, which focuses on problem-solving and supporting subgroups that fall under the Federal Index.”
As described by recent Op-Eds published in Hernando Sun, The Impact Journey: Equity in Education uses terms such as minoritized. The book defines minoritized in the following way:
“Minoritized is a verb. It refers to mistreatment and prejudice resulting from situations outside one’s control. People who are minoritized have less power or representation than members of other groups in their society.” The book defines minority in the following way:
“Minority is a noun. It refers to a person who is part of a group that makes up less than half of the total population.”
The training manual encourages teachers to “Fight Affinity Bias.”
Affinity bias is defined as “the unconscious tendency to get along better with others who are like us.”
It has the following impacts:
“Decreases the amount of time and positive attention minoritized students receive from adults in the school.”
“Contributes to the misinterpretation of a student’s intent as negative, rather than positive.”
The training manual also encourages teachers to recognize meritocracy.
“Meritocracy is the belief that our social system is the one in which success and status in life depend primarily on an individual’s talents, abilities, and effort- that people advance on the basis of their merit.”
However, according to the book, the impact of this thought process is that:
“Only a narrow gauge of intelligence is honored.”
“It undermines growth mindsets, collaborative instructional practices, and emotional belonging.”
The training encourages teachers to combat color-blindness.
“Color-blindness is the misguided belief that moving past racial discrimination means “just seeing people as people.” This allows the dominant race to ignore the ongoing inequalities, racism, and adversity minoritized races experience. ”
Shepard describes the above training as focusing on “equity through authentic relationships, high expectations and self awareness to support school’s plans in providing opportunities for all students.”
On Feb. 12, 2021 school guidance counselors and social workers received this training, while 65 members of the district’s Achievement Gap Committee received the training on Oct. 21, 2020.
Another way the district is working towards closing the achievement gap is through a partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS). In June 2019, the school district approved a collaboration agreement with EOS in efforts to close the achievement gap in Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) courses. The School District paid EOS $124,000 for the 2019-2020 school year and $112,000 for projects in the 2020-2021 school year. The program, which had already been instituted in the Pasco County School District, would be approved for Hernando County schools in June 2019. Staff members made visits to Pasco County to see how the program was implemented there and obtained support from principals prior to the school board approving the program.
The funding came from a Title IV, Part A federal grant – Student Support and Academic Achievement. EOS assisted the district in creating student surveys to identify potential lower performing students for AP, IB and AICE courses; and set up equity teams for each school. According to Shepard: Equity teams identify gaps in learning for the school’s subgroups; create goals for the annual SIP (School Improvement Plan); identify best research based practices; work with school staff to ensure instruction is aligned to the SIP.
Another task was changing teacher mindsets as described by Tracy Conrad with EOS:
“We have in our mind this idea of what an AP student looks like and so we have to have some conversations; be thought partners with principals to really look at how we can eliminate some of those barriers that teachers might have with their implicit biases and then finally we do the outreach and support and you're going to be amazed at the number of students that we add to those advanced classes.”
In response to concerns related to the school district’s equity in education program, Angela Shepard states,
“I am aware of concerns expressed by some regarding these topics. Schools in the Hernando School District do not teach Critical Race Theory, white privilege or BLM in any course, at any grade level. There is no communication between staff and school board directing the teaching of these topics because course content in the school district is not directed by individuals but is defined by the Florida Dept. of Education via the Florida State Standards. Equity Training is not a curriculum. This professional development was used to provide teachers and administrators with research-based practices to guide ongoing, focused reviews of subgroup data and the development of problem-solving teams to close the achievement gap.”