Coming together: one district’s inquiry: by pooling its resources and insights, this district came to a fuller understanding of what its gap looks like and how to close it

Coming together: one district’s inquiry: by pooling its resources and insights, this district came to a fuller understanding of what its gap looks like and how to close it

Michele Brynjulson

The concept or” closing the achievement gap is so daunting. It consumes much of the energy of administrators and teachers, and right-fully so. What could be more important than ensuring that all of our students achieve at high levels?

And still, so often, as school administrators we feel overwhelmed in our efforts to address the complex issues of achievement. Often we are too professionally isolated and pressed for time to work with other school administrators on closing the gap. Instead, we work within our school communities in self-imposed seclusion, identifying the obvious, hurriedly searching for remedies, then adopting practices and programs as solutions.

Last year, as an aspiring school leader working to complete my master’s degree, I was encouraged by colleagues in my district to organize and facilitate an inquiry among administrators and teachers to delve into the achievement gap and how that gap manifested itself in our district. For this inquiry, principals and teachers from several schools and the district office volunteered to come together to investigate questions about the achievement gap.

This work, in a suburban San Francisco Bay Area district, was both an academic venture and a labor of love on the part of”the participants. For too many years, these school administrators and teachers felt as it their schools were fighting the uphill battle and not making enough headway toward lasting academic improvements, especially for the increasingly diverse student body of the district.

We saw this inquiry as a way to pool our resources and insights to come to a fuller understanding of what the achievement gap looked like in our district and across the schools in our district.

How we set out to study the gap

Between 1987 and 2004, our district experienced a 48 percent increase in student enrollment. During those years, white student enrollment increased by 27 percent, while enrollment For other ethnicities increased by 68 to 331 percent. Clearly, this community was a microcosmic example of”the changing demographics within the state of California.

During this period when test scores showed an achievement gap between white students and students of color, there seemed to be a common assumption by adults in the district that the students of color who performed less well on state and local assessments were new transfers into the district. We wondered whether this belief,impacted the ways we worked with students of,color or manifested itself in our expectations for the students’ potential achievement.

In order to investigate these questions, the inquiry group looked at the California Standards Test results for English-language arts and math and report card grades, and supplemented this data with student interviews and teacher surveys.

We began with the basic assumption that the non-white students who weren’t achieving were new to the district. Our inquiry group analyzed data for all students, reviewed the results of students identified as special education and/or Gifted and Talented Education students, and noted that non-white students were not performing as well as their white counterparts in every category.

To identify students to interview, we focused on those students of color who had been in our district five or more years aim who scored at the basic or below basic levels on the 2003 California Standards Tests for English language arts and/or mathematics and who had received first semester grades of D or P. We selected a random sample from this group and gained permission from nearly 50 parents to interview their children.

In the interviews, we wanted to learn what students of color and their white peers thought about their academic performance and how, if at all, teacher behaviors or expectations influenced that achievement. We also wanted to learn more about how teachers viewed student achievement and teacher impact on that achievement. To get this information we used an online survey (Bandura, 1997).

What we learned

Unfortunately, student performance data in our district showed all-too-common patterns. When compared to the district average of performance data for white students enrolled five or more years, we found that our African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American students who had been enrolled for the same amount of time had lower enrollment in GATE, a much higher enrollment in special education, and scored at the basic or below basic levels on the ELA and math CST far more often than our white students.

Our interviews with students of color portrayed a school experience that is often very different than what their teachers described. At one end of the spectrum, non-white students described teachers who provided explanation and assistance, consistently showed them respect, set out clear expectations for class assignments and behaviors, and believed in the students’ abilities. These students often found athletics as the time in school they felt able to achieve.

However, these same students talked about roadblocks to their achievement, including teachers who humilated them or showed them little respect, as well as teachers who seemed disinterested in helping them learn. And while some of these roadblocks seemed intentional to students, others were perceived as behaviors based on unexamined beliefs and stereotypes.

Teachers, however, saw things much differently. More than 500 district teachers, or 42 percent of the district’s teaching force, responded to the survey. In the survey, classroom teachers described themselves as able to motivate students who showed low interest in schoolwork, able to get through to the most difficult students, to promote learning when there is a lack of support from the home, to influence student academic performance and to teach students who are culturally different from themselves.

Knowing what we don’t know

When our inquiry team began this work, we reflected on the fact that we often don’t know what we don’t know. The data we collected and examined–student performance and perception data, and teacher beliefs about expectations–seemed in direct opposition to each other. We listed a handful of reasons why this might be so. One was the possibility of teachers not knowing what they don’t know.

In his article, “Good or Bad: What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally Get!” Richard Tauber (1998) includes a powerful discussion on the Pygmalion effect and its relevance to the connection between teachers and student performance.

“Teachers convey expectations using four Factors: climate, feedback, input and output. The four factors can better be controlled if teachers are more aware that they are operating in the first place. Even if teachers do not truly feel that a student is capable of greater achievement or improved behavior, they should at least act as though they hold such heightened positive expectations” (Tauber, 1998).

Supporting students to meet expectations

Our inquiry findings suggested to us that we could not discount the need for teachers to develop stronger strategies for conveying clear expectations and acting in ways that support the learning of students of color to meet those expectations. These findings also made us begin to think about the roles administrators must take on to help students achieve.

While the district does not yet have programs or solutions in place to address all of the concerns we uncovered through this inquiry, the results are providing the district with new information and ways of thinking about closing the gap. There is a district-wide commitment to share what was learned and problem-solve together at both the district and school levels in order to find new ways to support students who are struggling.

Lessons for school leaders

Much of the impetus (or this collaborative inquiry effort had to do with the district culture and its support for taking on difficult issues that relate to race, ethnicity and culture. District leadership encouraged the inquiry participants to explore these issues and made data, as well as district experts, readily available to the group. Top district leadership met with us to hear our findings and to pose questions about what the outcomes would mean for the district. In other words, the district culture supported a true exploration of the underlying issues the achievement gap represents.

The inquiry participants also worked hard to explore larger issues. As administrators, too often we found ourselves lost in the day-to-day time crunch with little space to move forward, out of time to learn from others. Because I was enrolled in an educational leadership master’s program, I had access to current research and theory. The master’s program emphasis on inquiry (Lee, Storms, Camp and Bronzini, 2002) that supports equity for high achievement provided me with many resources, as well as tools for learning about and discussing equity issues (Szabo et al, 2002).

Based on the inquiry group’s questions, I provided resources (Boss, 2002: Delpit, 1995; Holloway, 2004: Lee, 2002; Tomlinson, 2003: Wenglinsky, 2002) to the group and facilitated discussions about these readings that helped move the conversation ahead, especially about topics related to race, ethnicity and culture.

This inquiry showed the importance of administrators and teachers collaborating within a district. As a group, we were able to explore our assumptions about the achievement gap and particularly about the achievement of our students of color. We analyzed a variety of data, looking for patterns across the district–working not to come to quick answers, but rather to consider multiple perspectives and ways of thinking about the data.

We talked openly about what data showed about our schools. We worked to keep open minds about improving the achievement of underperforming students of color. We searched for ways to improve teaching and our leadership. This collaborative effort pooled our strengths so that each of our sites could benefit from the group effort. It also provided us with an unexpected dividend: The inquiry nourished us when we were fatigued by expectations and the day-to-day leadership crunch.

Finally, as an emerging leader, I learned the importance of connecting with other educators both in my own district and outside of it. For my own leadership development, connecting with aspiring administrators from many other districts as part of my master’s degree program provided me with insights about how to proceed.

Reflecting on the inquiry process

Having regular access and consistent support from my professor helped me reflect on the inquiry process, the questions the inquiry group was addressing and the progress we were making. With their help, I learned that my tentativeness sometimes limited the success of the inquiry. As the year progressed, I learned that as group facilitator, I sometimes needed to prod the group and help them move ahead so as not to get stalled on a particular question or, more often, by pressures of the school year.

From my district colleagues I gained a broader perspective on what it looks like to take on the complex issues of leading efforts to close the achievement gap. I now understand why school leaders need support systems and coaches, including personal mentors, district-sponsored groups, or groups supported through county offices and/or universities.

These lessons are especially important now that I have moved from the district where this inquiry took place into my first assistant principalship. Simply said, closing the achievement gap is too complex to take on alone.


Bandura, A. (1997). Teacher’s Self-Efficacy Scale. Retrieved Dec. 20, 2003, from

Boss, S. (2002). Winning their hearts: Nathan Hale High School creates a more personal place for kids. Northwest-Education.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Holloway, J. (February 2004). “Closing the achievement gap in math.” Educational Leadership. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Lee, G., Storms, B., Camp, M. & Bronzini, P. (2002). When school lenders use inquiry as a reform real: Developing leadership for collaboration. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Szabo, M.A., Gonzales, S., Hoagland, G., Hopkins, P., Kass, M., Lopez, J., Rodriguez, G.M. & Storms, B. A. (April 2002). Teaching bold, socially, responsible leadership. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. Retrieved Aug. 11, 2004 from

Tomlinson, C.A. (October 2003). “Deciding to teach them all.” Educational Leadership. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Tauber, R. (1998). Good or Bad: What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally Get! ERIC document ED 426 985, ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education, Washington, D.C.

Wenglinsky, H. (2002). How Schools Matter: The link between teacher classroom practices and student academic performance. Education Policy Analysis Archives.

Michele Brynjulson is an assistant principal in the Pleasanton Unified School District. Barbara A. Storms is associate professor, Department of Educational Leadership, California State University, Hayward.

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