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State commission provided blueprint to close achievement gap 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, the NC Commission on Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps issued a report with 11 recommendations to improve minority students’ academic achievement.

On Tuesday, the State Board of Education (SBE) acknowledged that many of the report’s goals have not been met even as it posthumously honored Robert Bridges, the longtime North Carolina educator who chaired the ground-breaking Commission.

Robert Bridges

Bridges was the first Black superintendent of the Wake County school system. He died in September. The SBE presented Bridges’ family a gift to show its appreciation for his efforts to ensure a “sound and basic education” for North Carolina’s school children.

SBE member Olivia Oxendine served on the Commission. She told the board that the recommendations in the “Bridges Report” are  still relevant. Oxendine noted that the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) touches upon some of them in the work it’s currently doing to close the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers.

“But if you take a look at the cover of that report, we have a way to go,” Oxendine said. “You see the vision. The vision is actually on the cover of the report. You see the trajectory and we haven’t quite gotten there, but can we? We certainly can.”

Olivia Oxendine

Oxendine was referring to the December 2001 report’s cover, which features an aspirational growth trajectory chart that shows minority students closing the achievement gap.

Tuesday’s discussion took place during the first day of the SBE’s two-day bi-annual planning and work session.

The commission was created in 2000 to advise the SBE, the state Superintendent, and local school districts on strategies to raise student achievement and to close the achievement gap that existed, and still exists, between minority students and their white counterparts.

“A rising tide will lift all boats but their physical relationship to each other will not change without some additional intervention,” the commission said in the report. “We must create new traditions in this case and go beyond the routine . . . and in some cases, beyond our comforts if we are to succeed in this endeavor.”

The commission recommended that steps be taken to “reduce, then eliminate” the disproportionate number of minority students assigned to special education programs; provide more opportunities for minority students to take advanced courses; improve communication between parents and schools and ensure classrooms have well-trained teachers who are adequately supported.

“Most policymakers, parents, educators, and researchers now generally agree that nothing is more closely tied to student achievement and underachievement than the preparation, support, and quality of classroom teachers,” the Commission said. “It follows then, that nothing is more critical to our efforts to close the achievement gap than making certain that every student, especially those who have been traditionally underserved by public schools, has access to competent, caring, qualified teachers in schools organized for success.”

Click this link to seen the full report.

A similar recommendation was made in 2019 by WestEd, an independent consultant hired by Superior Court Judge David Lee to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. Lee is overseeing the state’s landmark Leandro school funding lawsuit.

Here’s what WestEd said about the importance of well-trained teachers:

“North Carolina can never succeed in providing a sound basic education for its children without vastly improved systems and approaches for recruiting, preparing, developing and retaining teachers and for placing high effective teachers where they are most needed to foster the academic growth of at-risk students.”

Judge Lee could issue a court order Monday to compel state lawmakers to fund a plan that calls for $1.7 billion in new school funding over the next two years. The plan would cost $5.6 billion over the next seven years and would pay for teacher raises, provide additional funding to low-wealth school districts and expand the NC Pre-K program.

Former state superintendent Mike Ward, who led NCDPI from 1996 to 2004, said the commission grew out of the recognition that the state needed to do more to accelerate achievement.

“Bob [Robert] Bridges and the commission acted on the belief that we can’t become who we aspire to be as a community; as a state; as a nation, if we don’t accelerate achievement and close gaps,” Ward said

He noted that as the commission was created, the National Education Goals (NEG) panel cited North Carolina and Texas for making greater combined student achievement gains in math and reading than any other state.

The two states also made significant improvements on more measures of progress toward NEG goals than any other state and were making progress toward narrowing achievement gaps by race and ethnicity.

“But in spite of all these signs of progress, it was very clear the system was not working well for all students,” Ward said.

Bridges’ son Randy Bridges has worked as a superintendent in this state and South Carolina. He said student achievement goals can be reached if North Carolina perfects its K-2 “foundational piece,” which includes reading on grade level.

“Everybody in this room knows that, and we’ve known it for years, and not doing a lot about it,” Randy Bridges said. “We’re working toward it but not doing enough.”

Bridges started an education consulting firm, Creative Education Solutions, Inc., in 2013. He currently serves as a mentor to superintendents and principles in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Randy Bridges said that as a superintendent, he found that year-round schedules with nine weeks of instruction, then three weeks of intercession, worked well for young children.

He urged the SBE to give district leaders the flexibility and resources to meet the needs of students and recommended that K-2 pods be created across the state to give young students the best chance at academic success.

“Make this special, make it pilots and give them [educators] an opportunity to do that,” Randy Bridges said.

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