Disrupting the Opportunity Gap

February 24, 2020

Lydia Dobyns President and CEO New Tech Network

by Lydia Dobyns
President and CEO, New Tech Network

Inequity in public education has a long and persistent history in the United States. Progress to close disparities associated with race, gender, economic status, community and familial situations has been both slow and challenging.

One of the challenges we face is how we measure student success and what steps we take when we see significant differences in test scores. It is common to read about “closing the achievement gap” meaning end the disparities among students taking state-administered annual tests. When looked at through the lens of race and income levels we continue to see major gaps between historically marginalized populations and white students who are not economically disadvantaged.

When we focus on the test scores as measures, we situate the problem as one with the student – if performance isn’t satisfactory, we equate the issue to a lack of skill development. The Opportunity Gap focuses on the ways in which public education systems create and sustain an unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities that contribute to student success. This alternate perspective, the Opportunity Gap, situates the problem as one with the system.

Mitigating opportunity gaps requires significant change within our structural systems while community realities frequently include declining enrollment, rising expenses and lack of political will to enact change. Blaming the system or the teachers and claiming schools are bad simply creates room to keep the status quo which means continuing to fail to meet students’ needs. The rhetoric is often divisive, and the path to change can seem daunting.

So how do we disrupt this Opportunity Gap at scale? By recognizing this problem and mitigating inequities at the school level and classroom practices.

At New Tech Network, our innovative project-based learning school-wide approach recognizes and works to disrupt two crucial aspects of the opportunity gap:

  • The Culture Gap: Students of color and students in poverty are more likely to experience a school environment that isn’t safe, inclusive, or supportive.
  • The Instruction Gap: Students of color and students in poverty are more likely to experience rote, low-level instruction that emphasizes memorization.

New Tech Network’s mission is to partner with schools to ensure all students regularly engage in authentic, complex thinking and problem-solving and experience a learning environment that is safe, inclusive, and emotionally supportive. For nearly 20 years our school redesign efforts have been based on partnerships resulting in more than 200 schools in 30 states. More than 90% of the schools in our network are district-operated schools. We believe the path to success includes:

  • deep systemic work around adult beliefs and mindsets,
  • intensive capacity building to design quality learning experiences, and
  • explicit work to build empowering school cultures and effective leadership.

We also believe it is critical to measure what matters. We are known as the “Rubrics Masters” for providing teachers in elementary, middle and high school levels guides that communicate expectations to students and provide scoring guides to assess student work. Additionally, using college-ready content rubrics developed with the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, New Tech Network teachers help students know if their work meets college-ready criteria thus providing valuable insight to students along with parents and teachers. We’ve also developed rubrics that assess student skills in collaboration, oral and written communications and student agency.

As a non-profit organization, we rely on philanthropic support to underwrite ongoing research and development, while recent efforts, including the allocation of Texas HB3 state funding, have helped us reduce the district burden for new school implementation.

It is New Tech Network’s goal to help make daily complex problem-solving through authentic learning accessible to all students in safe, inclusive, and emotionally supportive schools. My visits with schools across our network consistently feature students who display a palpable sense of curiosity and joyful learning. Their skills, scores and their graduation rates also affirm this approach works.

When we partner with schools and align all levels of the education system around a common vision, grounded in creating equitable learning opportunities for all students, great things happen.

This is why, despite how challenging the task of tackling inequity in our public education system can seem, I have never been more optimistic about what is possible in successfully transforming our local schools.