What’s the Secret to Closing the Achievement Gap?

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…