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SXSWedu keynote: Closing the achievement gap begins in the halls

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The 2014 SXSWedu Conference & Festival kicked off this week in Austin, Texas. SmartBrief Education has been on the ground, bringing readers regular coverage of the event.

Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education and 2014 SXSWedu keynote speaker, developed early in his life the belief that education was a pathway to solving the world’s problem. Paige grew up in Monticello, Miss., during segregation, when “there were two worlds, a white world and a black world.”

Paige, who was a coach, teacher and later the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, brought to Wednesday’s keynote session Education: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time a rich history of experience as a classroom practitioner and a policymaker on Capitol Hill.

“There is no civil rights strategy that would be more powerful than closing the (black-white) achievement gap,” Paige told conference attendees. “Responsibility is along the pipeline, but it has to be where the people walk the halls with students.”

Paige acknowledged that as a nation there has been a lack of systemic progress in closing the black-white achievement gap, and while there are exceptions that can provide lessons to others, there still is much work to be done to effect change.

“We need effective policy, but there is a serious gap between policy and practice,” he said. “If the policy does not impact practice, then it’s of very little value.”

He suggested that to help close the “policy gap,” individuals working on policy should know what’s happening on the group level and involve practitioners in their decision making.

Today’s education stakeholders are debating issues — standards, assessments, teacher qualifications and more — similar to those that Paige, who often is best remembered for implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, encountered during his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education.  He weighed in during the keynote on some of these contemporary issues. Here are some of the highlights:

Standards and assessments

School leaders, teachers and others have to be able to measure student progress against education standards so they can see how student subgroups are performing and identify areas for improvement.  Assessment data helps stakeholders avoid making decisions with blind spots, Paige said. “If the state has appropriate standards; if these are the right standards, you must know the extent to which students are achieving or not achieving those standards in order to make appropriate corrections,” he said.

Common Core State Standards

The nation has some risk due to inadequate performance so there has to be some national coordination, Paige said. Whether common core is the right one is debatable, but with 50 different moving parts, the nation will never be able to have an efficient system with that many points of authority. Part of the problem with the common core is federal involvement, Paige noted. “For example, I think that the Department of Education should not be taking a position on common core or pushing people towards the common core. That’s one of the reasons we get a lot of push back,” he said. The common core does not come from the government; it comes from the states coming together to determine standards and then deciding if they want to join. “That’s different than the federal government incentivizing people to do this,” he said.

Teacher training and recruitment

Teacher selection is one of the most important decisions superintendents make, according to Paige. He noted that teacher training should include more clinical experiences for teachers, instead of short periods of “practice teaching.” Perhaps the model would be similar to the medical profession’s use of residency training programs, he said. In terms of the role of teacher training and recruitment in closing the achievement gap,  he said schools probably do not need to focus on having Hispanic teachers teach Hispanic students, but schools need to involve these groups in the school makeup as a whole so that it models students’ environments.

Read more of our SXSWedu coverage: Q-and-A with SXSWedu Executive Producer Ron Reed, coverage of Tuesday’s keynote with Vivienne Ming and Norma Ming reporting on a SXSWedu Playground session.

Melissa Greenwood is SmartBrief’s senior education editor, with responsibility for the content in a variety of SmartBrief’s education briefs. She also manages content for SmartBlog on Education and related social media channels. Prior to joining SmartBrief, Melissa held a variety of positions in the education field, including classroom teacher and education editor and writer.