Closing the Gap

How educators and policymakers can tackle the achievement gap

By Catherine Capellaro

An Interview with Ohio State Senator C.J. Prentiss by Catherine Capellaro

Ohio State Senator C. J. Prentiss believes it’s time to get serious about closing achievement gaps between white students and students of color. Prentiss, a Democrat from Cleveland, is the chair of the Primary and Secondary Education Committee of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL). She is the convener of the Ohio Close the Gap Campaign and serves as the ranking Democrat on the Ohio Senate Education Committee. Prentiss has taught at many levels, from preschool to college. She helped found the National Coalition of Education Activists and served on its steering committee from 1996-1999. Prentiss spoke recently with Rethinking Schools about what she thinks we can do to help reduce inequality in education.

RS: Can you describe the joint effort recently launched by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) to address inequities in education?

Prentiss: Our collaboration marks a historic moment in the struggle to improve the quality of education our children receive and the quality of education that all children in poverty receive. In the past several years, both organizations completed policy studies to document and analyze achievement gaps. We made similar findings about what is needed to close achievement gaps, such as increasing the number of high quality teachers in underserved schools and improving the classroom experience for students. As we talked, it became clear that the educational challenges, opportunities and outcomes for Latino and African-American children are closely linked and that we should work together.

RS: What does that work entail?

Prentiss: We’re undertaking collaborative efforts in six states (Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Texas) to advance solutions such as ensuring students have teachers who are culturally competent and providing extra funding for intervention programs, including after-school, in-school, summer school, and Saturday school programs, to bring students up to grade level.

We feel it’s important to send a message to the educational and political community that African-American and Latino legislators are going to undertake the work necessary to close achievement gaps rather than bemoaning them. We believe we need a new Civil Rights Movement that makes educational equality its central focus. In Ohio, our Close the Gap Campaign has made it a priority to mobilize parents, students, and community organizations. Without a movement capable of increasing public awareness and pressuring education institutions at all levels, we won’t make any real progress. We will also try to work with legislators who represent communities with disproportionate concentrations of poor white children. We need to work with other legislators who make addressing the needs of poor children and ending poverty a top priority.

RS: How would you characterize the achievement gap in your state?

Prentiss: In Ohio, the achievement gap is pervasive and it stems from race, language, and class differences. In Ohio, we also have gaps based upon geography. While we have 28 Appalachian counties, we also have eight large cities, three large metropolitan areas, and countless farms. One of my guiding principles is that the quality of education should not depend upon where one lives. All children should get a quality education regardless of where they are born and to whom. As we struggle to close achievement gaps, we also must close income gaps.

RS: We are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown decision. Has our society met its obligation to children of color in the post- Brown era?

Prentiss: We must acknowledge the tremendous progress that we made during the first 25 years post- Brown. But after that, we started backsliding, especially since the decline of the U.S. manufacturing economy and explosive growth in the income gap since the 1970s. Those two factors and the resurgence of anti-government rhetoric made fulfilling the promise of Brown from the late ’70s until now very difficult.

When I look at the data on graduation rates and test scores, I cannot say that we have met our obligation to children. Our obligation to children is much deeper than integration. What is at stake is the quality of the actual education children receive. If we can begin this decade to make closing achievement gaps a top national priority and succeed the following decade, then we may have met our obligations under Brown, but we haven’t so far.

RS: What do you suggest teachers and principals do to reduce the achievement gap?

Prentiss: I recently secured an amendment to add cultural competency to Ohio’s professional development standards. I didn’t prescribe a definition for the State Board of Education to use, but my language did specify that teachers must be able to “know, understand, and appreciate” the students they teach and those students’ families and communities. Once cultural competency is embedded in our professional development standards, then it will also be incorporated into teacher evaluations and into building evaluations.

I feel this focus on cultural competency will help teachers build on the cultural and language qualities that children bring to the classroom rather than looking at those qualities as deficits. Principals will also play a role in ensuring that teachers develop high levels of cultural competency; building evaluations will monitor that progress. I hope other states consider incorporating similar cultural competency provisions into their standards.

RS: What do you think state lawmakers need to do to help educators reduce the achievement gap?

Prentiss: We know we need more funding. That is a given. We also know what works: reduced class sizes, more time on task, better teacher training, better salaries and induc-tion/retention programs, strengthening bilingual education, etc. Our challenge is to build support for those programs and secure funding.

And I focus a lot on getting good data. For instance, we’ve had a law in Ohio since 2001 that says all children must receive intervention programs commensurate with their level of need. But it was compromised language—it didn’t have dedicated funding and gave school districts wide discretion to choose how to bring students up to grade level. When we incorporated the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into state law, we affirmed that commitment to provide intervention.

But here’s the rub: I have spent the last two years trying to document what intervention programs schools are using and how much they cost. I have also tried to determine how much those programs cost and what percentages of costs are provided by state funds as part of our state’s constitutional obligation to ensure all children receive a “thorough and efficient education.” But the data is elusive. I feel I have barely scratched the surface.

We know that children of poverty and many African-American and Latino students need increased personal attention so that they can get the help they need developing their skills and so that teachers can communicate their level of caring about their students’ success. But it’s so hard for state-level policymakers to cost those programs out, determine how much of the expense the state should pay, and gather research to determine which programs work and should be replicated. Once we have better data about which intervention programs work, I think we will be in a stronger position to argue for and secure funding for those programs.

Another idea is for state lawmakers to direct their research agencies to study achievement gaps to more clearly articulate the needs of low-income, African-American, and Latino students.

RS: What should the federal government’s role be in reducing the achievement gap?

Prentiss: NCLB instituted a drastic increase in the federal government’s role in education. It has declared equity of results for all children to be a national goal and made rating school districts and buildings part of a national accountability system. It often gets lost in the controversy surrounding NCLB, but Congress has now said that closing achievement gaps among different subgroups of students according to their race, economic status, English proficiency, and level of disability is a major policy goal. The achievement gaps are no longer hidden and talked about in whispers.

In the rhetorical sense, NCLB has made closing achievement gaps a national priority. But I am concerned that the present administration’s interest is in rhetorical appeals to the illusion of equity for purposes of electoral advantage rather than real investments that will produce real equity . The federal government needs to match its drastically increased level of intervention in local education with greatly increased funding.

RS: What role can teacher unions play in reducing the achievement gap?

Prentiss: One thing they can do is rethink their collective bargaining strategies so that quality teaching and student support become central to their negotiations strategy. Another thing they can do is to make the defeat of the enemies of education funding a top priority when it’s election time. We need more legislators who believe in public schools and want to work to improve schools. We have many legislators who want to dismantle and privatize education by diverting funds to alternatives to public education. Unions should also make sure they only endorse candidates who make closing achievement gaps part of their central agenda.

RS: What experiences in your own upbringing and education have made you feel so strongly about this issue?

Prentiss: My mother was a teacher and she primarily taught low-income Appalachian children. I remember her buying them clothes sometimes and using cooking oil as an old-fashioned anti-lice remedy. Her experiences made lasting, vivid impressions on me of the needs of poor children. She also had a very strong work ethic. She drilled into me, “Once a job has begun, never leave it until it’s done,” and “Be the job great or small, do it right or not at all.” My mother used to say, “Keep trying, Carolyn, you’ll get it,” so I have never been one to quit.

When I was four years old I heard my mother screaming. My dad was lying on the couch and he was bleeding. He was beat up by four policemen. He belonged to CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and he and some other men were checking out an all-white beach. The police saw him walking with his hands in his pockets and attacked him. The end result was they found the police guilty and they integrated the beach. My dad also participated in integrating Ohio Bell telephone company. My whole family background was that of struggle, and through struggle, progress.

I really look at the achievement gap and how difficult it’s been to disaggregate the data. We fought for so long trying to get the achievement gap recognized and reported. Because of this data, we’re now able to have a dialogue about what it is we need to do for children, for urban children, for Appalachian children. They’ve tried to hide it, but now it’s out in the open.

For more information on the NBCSL/NHCSL coalition or the Ohio Close the Gap Campaign, please contact Lois Jones at 614-466-4857 or