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Workshop suggests ways to reduce school achievement gap

Shirley Issel
Thursday May 16, 2002

To the Editor: 

During my campaign for school board (Nov., 1998) I became acutely aware of achievement gaps that exist in our schools between poor and minority students and white and Asian students. To me, this outcome was unacceptable, divisive and poorly understood. Everyone seemed to have a theory about the gap and a remedy as well, but few had facts to back them up. After the election, I began digging into the literature, attending conferences and asking questions. Having spent my professional career as a psychotherapist, mine was the business of change and I was determined to find solutions that worked! 

In the winter of 1999 I attended an Education Trust conference focused on closing achievement gaps in our high schools. I was particularly interested in this topic because I knew that reform in the elementary grades is easier to effect than reforms targeted at older students. During the conference I attended a workshop on the Writers' Room, a high school-based program that brings trained volunteers into the classroom to provide one-on-one coaching in revision-based writing. I left the Writers' Room workshop with literature, a video and the certainty that this powerful intervention could address class size issues, improve student achievement, and close achievement gaps. Thanks to its talented director, responsive teachers and enthusiastic volunteers, this program is now being successfully implemented at Berkeley High and pilot programs are now being developed for our middle schools. Rigorous assessments at BHS reveal that this program works! 

Because it is a matter of great urgency to find solutions that work, and learn from them, I want to make an attempt to identify and characterize the program's essential elements. 


1. The intervention is standards-based. It focuses on bringing students to grade level proficiency as measured by the California Language Arts Standards. [The Education Trust: “Dispelling the Myth: High Poverty Schools Exceeding Expectations” —] 

2. The intervention is classroom-based and therefore has an immediate impact upon teaching and learning. (I hate to tell you how many thousands of hours in standards based work that never made it into the classroom.) 

3. The intervention includes professional development that is designed to bring standards into practice. Writers' Room teachers receive training in designing standards based writing assignments that are compatible with the Writers' Room revision based coaching approach. The result is improved teacher effectiveness. [Education Trust: “Good Teaching Matters” and “Standards in Practice” —] 

4. The program is data-driven. The use of standards-based assessments to evaluate the program insures that enthusiasm and confidence are grounded in actual accomplishment. 

5. The program supports learning for all students in all classrooms where writing is done. No student, teacher or department is stigmatized as underachieving or “at risk.” Because it is for everyone, everyone is for it! [“Thin Ice: 'Stereotype Threat and Black College Students” Claude M. Steele. —] 

6. The Writer's Room supports volunteer and parent involvement that directly impacts student achievement. We have all heard that parent and community involvement are correlated with student achievement, but what exactly does that mean? Current research tells us that strategies which permit interactive homework that allow youngsters to show, share, and demonstrate what they are learning in class is the most powerful way to impact student learning. (“How Parents Can Support Learning” Rebecca Jones. American School Board Journal/ September 2001 — 


This summer, Writers’ Room coaches will begin working with eighth-grade graduates attending our promising Summer Bridge program at Berkeley High. I urge parents and community members who are committed to improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps to volunteer some time towards this effective and personally rewarding program. 


- Shirley Issel  

Berkeley School Board President