My View: Superintendent should focus on achievement gap

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John E. Lennon (Courtesy photo)
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By John E. Lennon

The Times has noted that, despite the distractions of heat and rain, July has been a busy month for Alexandria City Public Schools. Your July 12 article about the new ACPS Superintendent, Dr. Gregory Hutchings, “Hutchings takes helm,” and the accompanying editorial, “A season of transition at ACPS,” gave significant emphasis to the need for comprehensive planning and responsible decision-making regarding the issue of school overcrowding. The principal focus of the discussion, understandably, was on T.C. Williams High School and the growing debate as to whether or not Alexandria needs a second high school.

Hutchings, a T.C. graduate, left Alexandria early in his career to pursue his education – and has come back to us as an experienced teacher, successful manager and executive and accomplished educator. As to whether Alexandria needs a second high school he has posed the vital question – a choice, really – that the city will have to resolve: “Where is it going to be built? Or, are we going to have to be very innovative?”

As a participant in the ACPS long-range facilities planning group I have heard both arguments. Either build a new building, with all of the facilities and support services and infrastructure it would require; or, reconfigure current ACPS properties to alleviate overcrowding, while renovating its learning environment to accommodate a challenging and forward-looking 21stcentury curriculum.

The first solution – a new building – would likely be the easiest, assuming land and money could be found, obstacles cleared and roads built to hold the traffic. The second – using existing land and renovating current buildings – would require ACPS to come up with a plan that would not only resolve overcrowding but would also provide modern facilities and up-todate curricula and learning spaces more responsive to the requirements of today’s post-high school marketplace.

I feel strongly that while this debate takes the time and attention of much of the community, Hutchings and his senior staff should have the time and space to work on a more complex issue – one he dealt with successfully during his career – with a potentially wider impact on the entire K-12 spectrum of education, and on the City of Alexandria as a whole.

That issue is the substantial and growing gap in performance between socioeconomic and demographic groups within the student population, and the long-range impact it has on children at all grade levels.

This issue is more complicated than building a second high school, but if educators can deal with the complexity it will be worth the effort because of the benefits it will provide – not only to ACPS students, but to the city as a whole, now and in the future. T.C. graduates – whether headed for the job market or off to college – will be better prepared.

Two recent weekly polls in the Times would seem to support this view. The poll published on July 5 put education at the top of the list – ahead of affordable housing and other issues – among readers answering the question, “What would you most like to improve in Alexandria?” The same sentiment was reflected in the poll published on July 19, in which 44 percent of readers said the top priority for the new ACPS superintendent should be “full accreditation for all schools” – with just half as many, 22 percent, citing the “high school capacity crunch.”

Alexandria citizens support their public schools with their taxes, time and the enrollment of their children. They would like education to be job number one, a desire we should all support. When looked at in this way – and not just as an overcrowding issue – it makes sense to work a little harder for greater long-term benefits.

The writer is a candidate for Alexandria’s School Board in District C.

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1 COMMENT

  1. “(The important) issue is the substantial and growing gap in performance between socioeconomic and demographic groups within the student population, and the long-range impact it has on children at all grade levels. ..”

    Given documented trends in average performance on well established tests such as the SAT,
    decreasing the achievement gap may well be “the impossible dream”.
    As indicated in the table, below, the national, All Student average for SAT Critical Reading hasn’t changed materially in recent decades— true as well for average scores of groups classified by race/ethnicity.
    Given the effort, time and money expended to improve educational systems during the period for which SAT averages are shown, the fact that they haven’t changed suggests we shouldn’t expect marked change in average performance in this critically important ability for any subgroup in the foreseeable future.
    And that raises the $64 question: What if the achievement gap is here to stay!

    Table 1. SAT Critical Reading average selected years
    1987 ’97 2001 ’06 ’11 2015 Group
    507 505 506 503 497 495 All students
    524 526 529 527 528 529 White
    457 451 451 454 451 448 Mex-Am
    436 454 457 459 452 456 Puerto R
    464 466 460 458 451 449 Oth Hisp
    479 496 501 510 517 525 Asian/Pac
    471 475 481 487 484 481 Amer Ind
    428 434 433 434 428 431 Black
    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001), Chapter 2. SAT mean scores of college-bound seniors, by race/ethnicity: Selected years, 1986-87 through 2010–11 (Note. 2015 data source: https://www.albert.io/blog/what-is-the-average-sat-score/