Closing the Achievement Gap: The Role of Policy

Over the past 50 years, closing the achievement gap has been a strong focus in shaping educational policy. While there have been some positive shifts since then, the gap remains significant for certain groups of students. 

One of the first major efforts to combat the achievement gap was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Enacted in 2002, this law increased the federal role of holding schools accountable in providing equitable outcomes for students.

Under the NCLB law, states were required to test students in reading and math from third to eighth grade. They were to report these results for the whole student population as well as certain “subgroups,” including economically-disadvantaged learners, minorities, students in special education, and English language learners. 

The law aimed to hold states responsible for their yearly progress in student outcomes with the ultimate goal of bringing all students to the “proficiency level” on tests by the 2013-2014 school year. It was unfortunately clear by 2010 that many schools were not going to reach this target. 

Federal policymakers began to rethink the NCLB Act, which led the Obama Administration to create the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. The ESSA brings more focus to preparing students for success in college and their careers. 

The new act highlights several provisions that aim to ensure success for all students. Some of these provisions include:

  • Creating protections for disadvantaged and high-need students
  • Requiring that all students are held to a high, uniform academic standard
  • Expanding investments to increase access to high-quality preschool programs
  • Upholding expectations of accountability for schools that show a lack in progress

While the ESSA requires uniform academic standards among schools, it also gives states flexibility in how they implement this law. This flexibility comes with the expectation that they create specific plans designed to reduce the achievement gap.

Under the ESSA, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is focused on four strategic priorities

  • Recruit, support, and retain teachers & principals
  • Build a foundation of reading and math
  • Connect high school to college and careers
  • Improve low-performing schools

Recruit, support, and retain teachers and principals 

Several of the action items under this strategic priority include improving teacher mentorship programs, redesigning the teacher certification framework, and increasing the diversity & quality of the teaching workforce. 

Build a foundation of reading and math

The TEA aims to achieve this priority by creating freely available literacy diagnostic tools for kindergarten, first, and second grades. The agency will also provide districts with high-quality instructional material in these areas so that students can engage more deeply with standards.

Connect high school to college and careers

This strategic priority involves developing a middle school college and career curriculum to help students explore their interests and various career pathways. It will also implement college and career readiness advising across the state. 

Improve low-performing schools

The TEA plans to improve low-performing schools by ensuring that Texas students are served by coherent, best-fit schools each year. They plan to improve teaching and learning by providing evidence-based instructional leadership resources related to planning, data-driven instruction, and student culture.

While there is no one solution for closing the achievement gap, improving federal and state policies is an important step. As teachers, parents, and policymakers join forces to narrow the gap, we can begin to create brighter futures for students of all races, incomes, abilities, and languages.  

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