Wehrly: What’s the Secret to Closing the Achievement Gap? Aligning Curriculum, Teacher and Student Expectations, and Whole-Child Support

What’s the secret sauce for academic success? A great teacher? More school funding? At-home support? This is a subject that generates impassioned debate in the halls of government as well as around kitchen tables across the country. Parents often think the key to their child’s academic success lies in which teacher they are assigned to and whether that person can identify children’s abilities, work to strengthen their core competencies and push them to be the best students they can be. At the same time, policymakers have focused on ensuring that teachers — especially at Title I schools — have the resources to ensure that no child is left behind.

Of course, the answer is pursuing all of the above. But what I’ve found as leader of a charter school system in a disadvantaged urban area is that another key to success is alignment. There’s no doubt that teachers are on the front lines every day, playing a pivotal role in a student’s academic journey. And there’s no doubt that schools need adequate instructional resources, fair funding and effective training. But it’s also important to take a higher-level view of how teachers, grade levels, curricula and academic focus areas are, or are not, working together coherently.

I have been focused for the past three years on alignment as a core strategy for closing the achievement gap, and I’m seeing remarkable results in the low-income, minority students who dominate the makeup of our schools in the St. Hope system.

By alignment, we mean coordination in curriculum, teacher and student expectations, and whole-child support.

When curriculum across teachers and grades is aligned, there are consistent expectations that students can adhere to. Creating vertical alignment between grades drives academic success as lesson plans are developed not only to teach at grade level but also to ensure that students are mastering foundational skills that will be needed for the grade above and beyond. When teams are aligned, teachers are not just teaching in classrooms, or even in their schools. Instead, they teach in a network where everyone works cohesively together and focuses on how to support their scholars throughout their entire journey, from transitional kindergarten (for children who don’t meet the age cutoff for kindergarten) to 12th grade to college admission. Students can depend on consistent teaching styles, communication methods and expectations for behavior inside and outside the classroom year after year. This cohesive culture helps create an express highway for students who have fallen behind to be able to receive the support they need to close the gap and excel quickly in the classroom.

Alignment in curriculum and among teaching teams is achieved through effective professional development. This means taking the time needed with teachers to plan coherent curricula that transition smoothly across grades and to foster a collaborative work environment with consistent expectations and support across grades and schools.

Alignment in expectations means believing that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, family situation or previous academic or behavior challenges, are capable of success. It means instilling in students at an early age that they have the potential to go to and through college. Simply put, there are no excuses — just because a child does not have the same at-home support or resources as others does not mean that he or she should be held to lower academic expectations. What it does mean is that teachers and school administrators need to ensure that each child is supported. This may come in the form of afterschool tutoring, small-group instruction and a greater emphasis on whole-child support.

When students have poor oral health, lack proper nutrition or suffer from mental health issues, their academic success is jeopardized. That’s why wraparound services, such as mobile dental clinics and eye exams, are critical. By serving as a family extension for students, ensuring they are physically and emotionally healthy, and teaching them life skills, my network gives students the resources to handle our demands for academic excellence and our refusal to settle for mediocrity.

The data show that alignment works. St. Hope schools have a very high percentage of minority and disadvantaged students, a population that traditionally tests below regional or state averages. Yet our standardized exam scores are higher than district averages in many categories. Our students come into our schools far below grade level but rapidly catch up. For example, our fifth-graders, who tested at 9 percent in math (compared with 25 percent for the district average), were testing at 48 percent (compared with a district average of 32 percent) by eighth grade. In contrast, the overall district scores for students moving through grade levels increased only a few percentage points rather than showing dramatic or rapid improvement.

For disadvantaged students, the results are even more striking. When looking specifically at how African-American students from low socioeconomic backgrounds performed on the statewide English test, St. Hope’s Sac High scholars scored 68 percent, compared with only 21 percent districtwide.

We have tripled the number of Sac High scholars on grade level in math and nearly doubled the number of scholars on grade level in English. At the same time, our suspension rates have dropped significantly, going from 22.7 percent to 9 percent for our elementary school, 22.6 percent to 18.7 percent for middle school and 18 percent to 12 percent for high school. What’s more, 96 percent of Sac High students were accepted into four-year colleges in 2019.

By focusing on and prioritizing alignment, we’ve put in place systems that create consistency and cohesiveness, and we provide whole-child support so we can push our scholars to do their best. Alignment has enabled us to instill in all our scholars that a propensity for classroom achievement is not something they are born with, but rather that academic excellence, college readiness and future career success is something that is learned and earned.

Kari Wehrly is chief of schools for PS7 Elementary School, PS7 Middle School and Sacramento Charter High School, part of the St. Hope system in Sacramento, California.

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