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  • by Blaine Helwig

"Work the Problem!"

My wife and I watched the Tom Hanks’ movie, Apollo 13 over the Holiday break. The movie has many memorable scenes of heroism and uplifting teamwork to save the lives of three imperiled astronauts after an inflight explosion on the spacecraft in route to the moon. Immediately after the oxygen tank explosion on the aircraft, the crew communicates their dilemma to flight control in Houston. NASA engineers in unison began shouting out concerns of carbon dioxide concentrations inside the space craft in desperate and panicked voices. NASA Flight Director, Gene Kranz responded emphatically, “Work the Problem. Don’t make things worse by guessing.”

I glanced at my wife and said, “That is a statement I have never heard about raising student achievement in any administrative, conference or teacher meeting in over two decades of professional work in the public schools.” One of the reasons I believe that both charter and traditional public school personnel do not “Work the Problem” is the main factor that impacts student achievement is not clearly defined.

What is the Problem?

While watching a recent Board of Trustees meeting for a large urban school district, the Board members reviewed standardized state test data prepared not by the District, but by the Trustee Board President. I was pleasantly surprised that two other Board members highlighted the academic disparity in the District’s high socioeconomic status (SES) elementary schools between students classified as economically disadvantaged and their more affluent peers. The fact that this performance gap exists is not a new revelation. However, the fact that the achievement gap in high SES elementary schools is due to the same educational factors in low SES – Title 1 elementary schools is of paramount importance.

All school and district adopted and daily core curriculum is designed and constructed for grade level skill development; however, if students do not possess prior grade level skills – meaning they possess impactful numeracy and literacy skill gaps, standardized test result disparities are a daily occurrence in the classrooms throughout the school year. The adopted core grade level curriculum is NOT the Problem. Students’ numeracy and skill gap deficiencies ARE the Problem. This is the Problem that must be worked! And, in elementary schools – independent of socioeconomic setting – the skill gaps are not nearly as difficult to close as compared to skill gaps once students are enrolled in a middle school, if left unaddressed. An academic and instructional focus on literacy and numeracy stop-gap resources narrows and closes these gaps – and the Problem is worked! There is no guess work. It does NOT require more money. Root poverty is NOT the pertinent issue, but an effective instructional and resource methodology that directly addresses the numeracy and literacy skill gaps solves the achievement disparity. Those resources are available, simply designed, inexpensive or free, and easy to implement. Effective implementation solves the singular Problem that prevents educational equity for our economically disadvantaged students – whether those children are enrolled in a high or a low SES elementary school.

Consider the following statements to form your own conclusion for number 4.) below.

  1. If three Board of Trustees members of an urban school district are able to highlight performance inequity that mirrors Title 1 elementary performance issues, and…

  2. It has been 64 years since the Supreme Court ruling, “Brown v. The Board of Education,” then…

  3. Why has this Problem not been addressed and solved when the solution is readily available?

  4. Is it unwillingness, ignorance or indifference to act in our central school district offices?

Regardless of the cause of inaction, there are causalities to the lack of public school implementation to remedy academic equity. The effect on society as a whole with exorbitant annual financial allocations to the public education system without appreciable results and the subsequent costs on the general economy with the myriad of woefully uneducated young adults entering the work force is staggering. However, the adverse social and economic impact of educational inequity from the cradle to the grave for the mass of economically disadvantaged children enrolled in public schools is morally immeasurable. It seems incomprehensible that an Apollo spaceflight crisis hundreds of thousands of miles from earth can be successfully solved, but the achievement and equity issues in our neighborhood public schools is a too distant and arduous task to effectively address.

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