Mending achievement gaps

ByTammi Sutton (op-ed)

For decades, educators and elected officials in North Carolina have been grappling with the most effective ways to improve the quality of public education. Now, a new international study of science and mathematics achievement is showing us where we have succeeded, and where we can go from here.

In the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, North Carolina was the only state in the nation to score above the U.S. average as well as above the TIMSS average in 4th grade mathematics; it was one of only 11 states to do so in 8th grade mathematics. Yet, the gaps in student achievement associated with a student’s race and income level continue to be unacceptable.

According to the 2011-12 North Carolina state test results, the achievement gap between black and white students was 29.9 percentage points, and children from low-income households were about 30 percent less likely to be proficient in reading and mathematics.

As a product of North Carolina public schools, a low-income, first-generation college graduate and a 16-year veteran of North Carolina public education, I know the devastating effects of educational inequality, as well as what it takes to close this gap. After starting out as a Teach for America corps member in Northampton County, I co-founded KIPP Gaston College Preparatory in 2001. The purpose was to empower students in eastern North Carolina with the same opportunities afforded their more affluent peers. Now 12 years later, we will spend the spring watching our founding students graduate from college. With a projected college completion rate three times the national average for kids of a similar background, our students will prove that demography does not define destiny.

While we are working to close the achievement gap, there is still a long way to go. If we want to continue our progress statewide, we need to address students’ needs from early childhood to college, and I urge Gov.-elect Pat McCrory and his administration to take the following steps:

What to do

Expand access to comprehensive pre-kindergarten options. Economists have shown that investing in early childhood education pays off throughout a student’s life, but many families cannot afford high-quality pre-K programs. Many states are moving toward universal, or near-universal, pre-K programs to ensure that our youngest students never experience the effects of the achievement gap.

While North Carolina has taken an important first step in this direction through a voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds from low-income communities, the state must identify high-quality pre-K programs and provide them the support they need to expand and serve as many children as possible.

Promote the growth of high-quality public school options. After gaining valuable skills in pre-K, all students must have access to high-quality public schools – district, magnet and charter. By creating incentives for collaboration, we can increase the number of good public schools that parents can choose from.

The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded $1.2 million to six states – including North Carolina – to facilitate collaboration between public charter schools and school districts. North Carolina can enhance the impact of these funds by contributing additional public dollars to improve academic offerings and provide parents and students with a range of options in their communities.

Increase college graduation rates for students from underserved backgrounds. Higher education also needs to be part of the conversation. North Carolina colleges must be encouraged to increase the graduation rates of low-income and first-generation college students.


The University of North Carolina’s creation of The Carolina Covenant has greatly impacted the college options of low-income students. Duke University and Davidson College recently partnered with KIPP to recruit and support more students from underserved backgrounds. These programs are designed to address the factors that keep students from reaching graduation – from mentoring programs to financial aid.

The state should provide financial incentives to colleges who adopt or strengthen programs like these and keep track of which schools are graduating high numbers of students from underserved backgrounds.

As Secretary of Education Duncan said, “It is so important that we break down traditional barriers and all work together to ensure that every child gets the world-class education they deserve.”

Education is the civil rights fight of our generation, and we need as many allies as possible to join this movement. As revolutionaries we can defeat our powerful enemies – excuses, racism, poverty, apathy, low expectations – because the combined force of collaboration can, and must, be greater. If we all work together, with a clear plan and an unshakable vision, there is no injustice that can stop us.

Tammi Sutton is the co-founder and school leader of Gaston College Prep – a public charter school part of the KIPP network – and a 16-year veteran of the North Carolina public schools.