Tom Forcella: Owning up to our ‘Best Schools’ omission

06/06/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 11:25 AM

Recently, when U.S. News and World Report released its list of the top high schools in America, the performance gap between our district’s white and minority students was cited as the reason why none of our high schools made the list. This variable has been recently added to the matrix – as I believe it should be.

While we believe that our high schools are just as deserving of being named among the best in the nation, we would be doing ourselves, our students and our community a true disservice if we did not admit that our omission is justified.

Yes, an achievement gap does exist in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. We absolutely recognize and own this problem. In fact, the elimination of that gap is one of the main goals included in our recently released 2013-18 Long Range Plan.

Many varying opinions exist within our community on the cause and the solution for narrowing or eliminating the performance gap. While some of these may be valid points to consider, our focus, as a school district, must be on educating all students who come through our doors, regardless of their educational background, abilities or socio-economic status. We believe that all students can learn and grow, and we feel certain that we can eliminate the gap through better instruction.

Our district has developed a number of strategies to help us accomplish this task including setting high standards for all students, more effectively using culturally proficient instructional practices, implementing a system of academic supports and re-teaching that address students’ needs and creating more support and opportunities for typically under-enrolled segments of the student population to advance to Honors and A.P.-level classes – to name a few.

The Mindset strategy

Another strategy we are implementing is based on the work of world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. Through decades of research on achievement and success, Dweck discovered a simple idea called Mindset. It’s an idea that I believe can make all the difference in the way we teach and in our students’ ability to learn, grow and succeed.

Basically, she found that some believe success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence or a fixed mindset, while others believe success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness. These individuals are said to have a “growth” theory of intelligence or a growth mindset.

By adopting a growth mindset within our district, a student’s background or socio-economic status is removed from the equation. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity, and helps students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. With a growth mindset, everyone can experience academic growth if they work hard enough and have excellent instruction.

Too often, educators consider time to be the constant and learning the variable. When the allotted time for a lesson has expired, we move on to the next one regardless of whether students actually learned the material.

We must change our paradigm so that learning is the constant and time becomes the variable. In this approach, we commit that all students will learn the material regardless of how long it takes.

CHCCS leadership is both obligated and committed to providing excellent instruction, motivation and support to help our teachers and our students close the gap that currently exists in our district. And who knows, in time, maybe the names of our high schools will return to U.S. News and World Report’s list.

More importantly, we will eliminate the gap once and for all … and EVERY student will enjoy a successful school experience.

Tom Forcella is the superintendent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

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