A VOICE FOR ALL STUDENTS – An Interview with Russlynn Ali

Winter 2008 | | March 6, 2008 at 10:03 am


Russlynn Ali is Vice President of the Education Trust and founding director of the Education Trust-West, the west coast partner of the EdTrust. Russlynn attended Spelman College and graduated from the American University with a bachelor’s degree in Law and Society. She also holds a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law. Russlynn serves on the boards and advisory committees of a number of education related organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee and the California Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

Renowned for their research and analysis of effective educational practices, Education Trust—West is a partner with California GEAR UP in working for the high academic achievement of all students. Their mission also includes closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.

In a series of articles from the Los Angeles Times website in November, Russlynn Ali debated Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, author of Class and Schools, and former national education columnist for the New York Times. The following interview uses excerpts of Russlynn from that debate.

How would you describe the achievement gaps in California?
It’s clear from student achievement data that California is experiencing twin achievement gaps separating California’s low-income African American and Latino students from their white and more affluent peers, and the gaps that separate the students in this state from their peers across the country. Closing these gaps is the most pressing task facing California’s educators. Our achievement gaps are real, scandalous and dangerous. Indeed, a snapshot of California’s middle school performance shows a grim picture of education in our state: California’s low-income Latino and African American seventh graders read at about the same level as white and more affluent third graders. A closer look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that all groups of California students perform below the national averages in reading, math and science.

Why is there concern that focusing on the achievement gap can do more harm than good?
I don’t know. To the contrary, we are doing far more harm to our children by not doing more. Some folks argue that schools can’t fix their problems alone—that we must also work to improve housing and health care and other challenges that students face. Those things are important. But what schools and educators do matters just as much. Indeed, all the evidence shows that when poor kids and kids of color get the teaching and resources they need, they can and do achieve at extraordinary high levels. It turns out that educators can do an awful lot to ensure academic success, even in the face of poverty.

The greater danger is in sending messages to education stakeholders that the achievement gap cannot be closed. Teachers and administrators will hear leaders decry the sheer impossibility of closing gaps and ask why they should even try to teach poor and minority kids to high levels. There is a different message we all should be sending, one that my colleagues and I hear across the state in fast-improving schools serving mostly low-income, Latino, and African American students. Their message is about hope, perseverance and hard work. Educators in these good schools see firsthand the results of poor healthcare and hunger, but they overcome these obstacles with what is within their power to deliver: strong teaching and academic supports.

Unfortunately, our schools routinely compound the damage that poverty and racism do by giving low-income students and students of color less of everything that makes a difference in student achievement: fewer strong teachers; less school funding; less rigorous curricula and assignments; sub-par facilities—the list goes on. No one should talk about the futility of closing the achievement gaps when we continue to allow these inequities to persist in our schools.

What resources are needed to help more schools prepare students to meet and exceed the state accountability goals?
First, state and local policymakers cannot claim to be serious about closing the achievement gap while letting the fundamental inequities in our public schools persist. Most damaging of all is the gap in teacher quality. Decades of research show that strong teachers are the most important influence on student achievement. Yet low-income students and students of color are far more likely than others to be taught by under-prepared teachers. Moreover, this happens not just once, but year after year throughout their educational experience.

Second, all students should have the same opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they need for college and the workplace. We must raise the rigor of all of our high schools and offer all students access to the courses they need to prepare for the future. The research is clear: In this economy, ready for college and ready for careers means the very same thing.
Third, we need to provide more instruction for students who enter school already behind, and that’s going to cost more. Most Americans agree that students who come to school learning English or from low-income households need more support in schools to help them catch up.

What effects do you see on the education climate from the recent Achievement Gap Summit in Sacramento?
The Summit sent a loud and clear message to everyone in California that California’s achievement gap is the most major crisis in our public schools. And it showed all of the 4000+ participants that the work to solve the crisis is not to be shouldered by teachers and administrators alone – it is a state responsibility. It raised these issues to the top of the civic and political agendas. Now the real task is in not losing the momentum, and in actually doing something to make sure kids hobbled by the gap finally get what they need to succeed.

California GEAR UP works exclusively with adults in middle schools. Do you have any advice for the GEAR UP community as we continue our mission to give more low-income students the skills, encouragement, and preparation needed to enter and succeed in postsecondary education?
Only that gains made from reforms in earlier grades get lost as students move forward to high school. The work of GEAR UP could follow the students through high school in order to continue the sustainability of those gains, and ensure students get the support they need if they start to slip as they journey through high school.

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