UW-Milwaukee: Good school culture crucial for closing achievement gap

Improving the professional culture of Wisconsin schools is critical for improving the achievement gap between students of color and white students.

That’s the finding of a recently completed report from the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness Research Partnership.

Curtis Jones, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Office of Socially Responsible Evaluation in Education, led the three-year study (2016-2019) of 211 Wisconsin schools. Jones, also co-director of the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness Research Partnership, worked with Marlo Reeves, also at SREED, and Katharine Rainey, of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, to do the study.  

The study compared schools with a strong professional culture with schools that had a weaker professional culture.

The researchers surveyed educators at the schools, and, based on the results, defined the school culture as either organized to improve or organized to stagnate. The categories were based on educators’ commitment to their school; the amount of collaboration teachers engage in; their trust with their principal; their perceptions of the performance feedback they receive, and their retention and job satisfaction.

The results showed a large disparity in academic results between Black, Latinx and white students, which was largely explained by a disparity in the strength of the professional culture of the schools each group of students attended. Specifically, very few schools serving Black or Latinx students had a strong professional culture with a stable group of educators who worked effectively together, trusted each other and were committed to their school.

Given the well-known achievement disparities between students of color and white students, which in Wisconsin are the largest in the nation between Black and white students, Jones said he was not surprised at the results, but at the size of the gap.

“At one level it’s the achievement gap, and at another level, it’s the opportunity gap, with Black and Latinx students being in less-effective schools. Both those gaps I think were much larger than I was expecting.”

The research also showed that the achievement gap between students of color and white students was much smaller in schools that were organized to improve, but only a minority of students of color in the study were in these schools, according to Jones.

Many of the schools designated as organized to stagnate fit what he described as “hard-to-staff” schools.

“A teacher who leaves is often replaced by a either a long-term substitute or an emergency certified teacher, and that’s like the best case scenario,” Jones said. “In some cases, students have a different substitute every day of the week. “How are you supposed to learn in that situation?”

If this type of situation happens in more privileged schools, parents either demand change and/or are able to provide other educational opportunities outside of school for their children, according to Jones.

But, for students who already come to school facing racial and social injustices, overcoming the challenges of schools that aren’t organized to improve is much harder. Jones explains they are already dealing with what the preeminent scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings described as “education debt,” the cumulative impact of fewer resources and other harm directed at students of color. (Ladson-Billings is the former Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has done pioneering work on educating Black children.)

“It’s not just school,” Jones said. “Schools are definitely a part of it, but it’s a combination of a lot of different things, (and) schools can make it worse. If we have really strong schools working with Black and Latinx students, then we can have a pretty good measure of how much everything else is impacting them.  But right now it’s just piling on the inequities that society has leveled on them.”

To overcome these challenges, Wisconsin schools have to recognize the racial inequities and focus on improving the professional culture in those schools that are not organized to improve, said Jones. That’s where the state’s efforts for improving test scores should be targeted.

“This study shows that if you improve those things, white student (achievement) will stay about the same, but Black and Latinx students improved quite a bit. If you want to improve state test scores, then you need to bring the students who are struggling up.”

The state’s Department of Public Instruction is aware of these issues, and is targeting them, though change takes a commitment of resources and effort. ‘DPI I think is taking some leadership to try to get out in front of these things, especially this year with Black Lives Matter and the growing understanding about institutional racism in in all parts of society. I think that’s a really positive movement in our state.”

Research like this report can help increase public awareness and understanding of the issues, Jones said.

Jones, Reeves, and Rainey will present their findings on reorganizing the professional culture in Wisconsin Schools eliminate racial achievement gaps to the Advancing Equity Coalition Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in a virtual program. For more information, go to the program website.