Guest: Building a community to close the education achievement gap

By Tom Stritikus and Elham Kazemi

Special to The Times

Tom Stritikus

Tom Stritikus


Elham Kazemi

WE share a tremendous responsibility: ensuring that all children receive a high-quality education in intellectually engaging and socially supportive school communities.

But the evidence is clear that our society is not fulfilling that responsibility. Each year, thousands of Washington children slip through an opportunity gap. Despite the hard work of thousands of well-meaning adults, children in poverty-impacted schools are most likely to get lost within the system.

For example, in South King County’s districts serving the lowest-income children, only two out of 10 students go on to earn a two- or four-year degree, according to the Road Map Project. The results are even more striking when we consider the compounding effects of poverty and race — only one in 10 students of color impacted by poverty will complete a degree.

To close this opportunity gap, we must collectively work to improve instruction. What might a community organized around quality instruction look like?

Parents and caregivers would be welcome partners of schools and community-based organizations, learning how to support and advocate for their children. They would recognize the qualities of supportive schools that prioritize students’ intellectual and socioemotional well being. Those in more affluent areas might extend their fundraising efforts beyond their own local school to support the broader educational community.

Quality teaching is far and away the most powerful school-based predictor of student learning. In an ideal community, teachers would continually examine their instructional practices. Just as medical doctors need continual professional development to sharpen their skills, teachers need ongoing opportunities to continue their professional growth and develop high-impact teaching practices. As part of this, school leaders would nurture rich learning communities that enable teachers to thrive.

This type of growth is already happening in a number of locations. Take, for example, the Teaching Channel’s “Reasoning about Division” video, which shows high-quality instruction aligned to common core standards.

Teachers at Renton’s Lakeridge Elementary have worked with school administrators, district staffers and University of Washington College of Education researchers to improve the effectiveness of their instruction. They’ve created a suite of practices for teachers to dramatically improve schools, disrupting long-standing notions about who can and cannot excel in school.

With support from the nonprofit Washington STEM, we are now working to adapt this professional learning model to math and science classrooms in multiple districts.

Effective educational leadership is another critical aspect of improved outcomes. Principals and district leaders play a key role in supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction.

Our society ought to have high expectations for superintendents, district and building-level leaders. As such, we believe that educational leaders at all levels should demonstrate their own effectiveness as instructional leaders.

That is why, beginning in 2014, the University of Washington’s Danforth Educational Leadership Program issues a guarantee to districts that our graduates will be able to perform to a set of competency-based standards.

If not, we provide free intensive instructional leadership development until the district is satisfied.

Educational researchers at the UW College of Education are working to fulfill our social contract of providing all children with the best education possible, most eminently through the Ackerley Partner School Network. While we’re committed to making a difference, we also recognize that our efforts aren’t sufficient to solve this problem.

Just imagine the impact if everyone in our region took up the challenge of closing the opportunity gaps between our children.

Tom Stritikus is dean of the College of Education at the University of Washington. Elham Kazemi is associate dean for professional learning at the UW College of Education.

See a video of Stritikus, part of the Seattle Times editorial page’s “Education Conversations” video series.