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ETS Achievement Gap Conference Focuses on Families and Academic Development

WASHINGTON — At a time when a national debate rages over whether charter schools are better than traditional public schools in abating the achievement gap, a conference on Monday sought to refocus attention on strengthening the family.

“(Family) is a stronger correlate of achievement than any of the other factors,” said Dr. Michael Nettles, senior vice president of the Policy Evaluation and Research Center at the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The Princeton, N.J.-based ETS hosted the event titled “The Family: America’s Smallest School.”

“So the socioeconomic status and condition of people’s lives is the biggest predictor of performance on assessments and tests that are administered to gauge achievement,” Nettles said. “It’s also the biggest predictor of gaps in achievement and quality of life.”

Monday’s conference, held at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, covered a range of topics from the standpoint of how various interventions, programs and policies can better enable families from low-income and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to get more involved in their children’s education in a way that assures better academic outcomes.

Much of the discussion focused on the benefits of providing access to quality early-childhood education to children from low-income families.

“The issue isn’t just access. The issue is quality,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark, N.J.-based organization that advocates for access to an equal and adequate education under state and federal laws. “Unless programs are very high quality, we’re not going to get where we want to go. We are not going to close the achievement gap unless we decide as a matter of national policy to get all kids, particularly children in poor communities, access to the kind of programs I just described.”

But there are some areas where government interventions have had a difficult time making a difference. One such intervention is the Building Strong Families (BSF) project, begun under the Bush Administration and overseen by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Panelist Robert Wood, associate director of research and senior economist at Mathematica Policy Research, said a recent evaluation of the program found that it had little to no impact. Specifically, with few exceptions, the federal program, designed to provide “relationship-skills education” to unwed parents through weekly group sessions with trained facilitators, made virtually no difference in father involvement, whether couples stayed together or got married.

“Our results suggest that it’s hard to make this approach work,” Wood said.

Though the achievement gap involves significant numbers of African-American, Hispanic and Native American students, engaging parents and families from those groups requires a culturally specific approach, several panelists said.

“When we talk about Latinos, it’s more about family engagement than parent engagement,” said Eugene Garcia, vice president of education partnerships at Arizona State University. “Fathers and mothers are available, along with grandparents, uncles, aunts.”

He said those working with Latino families should understand the meaning of the Spanish words such as educacion and confianza. With educacion, Garcia said, it entails more than just book smarts.

“They don’t just want their children to learn reading and mathematics,” Garcia said. “They want them to be good people.”

Confianza means “trust” and implies that educators have permission and a responsibility to treat students as if they were their own children and that the students owe educators the same respect as their parents.

The idea is “you are a parent to my child,” Garcia said.

Similar to Hispanics, Native Americans also have a heavy focus on the role of the extended family in a child’s education.

“Aunts, uncles, grandparents, they all have a role to play in the development of young people,” said Dr. John Tippeconnic, director of the American Indian Leadership Program at The Pennsylvania State University. “Sometimes, that’s broken down. Education has been used as a tool to break that down,” he added, recalling that Indian boarding schools from generations past separated children from their home communities to get Native Americans to adapt to the ways of Whites.

Much of the discussion of African-Americans dealt with father engagement, or lack thereof, because of societal ills such as incarceration.

Dr. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a child development and education professor at Teachers College and College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, presented data from a nearly decade-long study that showed that father involvement within unwed couples starts out strong but wanes over time because the fathers or mothers become involved with other partners and other factors. This in turn creates an instability that impacts children’s academics, such as their vocabulary scores, Brooks-Gunn said.

Brooks-Gunn called for better access to pre-K, Head Start and similar programs, although she acknowledged that research has shown the sustained impact of Head Start peters out in the primary grades.

“That’s the issue a lot of us want to look at,” she said.

Dr. Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, the U.S. Education Department assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, recounted her experience in elementary school as an English language learner. Meléndez paid homage to a kindergarten teacher who made her feel welcome by helping arrange out-of-school times for her practice to English with another student. But the following school year, a different teacher placed her in a low-level reading group despite her immigrant parents’ protests. Her parents ultimately put her in another school where she was placed in the second-highest reading group.

“I wish I could tell you all parents are like that but they’re not,” Meléndez said. She said more needs to be done to make parents feel welcome and encourage them to play an active role in their children’s education.

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