A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline "Minding the gap." More from this issue

Two leaders in education recently addressed a task force convened by Erikson to help close the achievement gap among young African American children in Illinois.

Facilitated by the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy, the Task Force on Reducing Achievement Gaps is in the process of generating recommendations that will ultimately be used to help focus state and local leaders’ attention on the creation of a practical and targeted blueprint for action.

Understanding the challenges

Christopher A. Koch, superintendent of education for Illinois, began the meeting with a candid discussion of the challenges facing school districts and the state, particularly around school funding.

“Chris’s involvement in this project is invaluable,” says Aisha Ray, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “His remarks increase the task force’s understanding of the challenges we must overcome at all levels and will help the group frame its recommendations.”

Collaboration required for effective reform

Jerry Weast, former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, gave the meeting’s keynote address. During his 12 years as superintendent of the largest and most diverse school district in the state, Weast led the successful implementation of a coordinated preK-12 comprehensive reform effort designed to raise academic standards for all students.

“We need to close the gap but also raise the bar,” Weast said. “Low expectations for high-end kids are just as bad as for students at risk.”

Weast stressed the importance of addressing racism and racial disparities as a critical factor in closing the achievement gaps. He also argued for true collaboration among stakeholders involved in education reform, including administrators, teachers, and lawmakers.

“Weast’s keynote address is one example of how the task force is exploring effective strategies that have been implemented elsewhere,” says Florence Kimondo, the project’s director. “Understanding what has been accomplished nationwide spurs discussion about what strategies might be implemented in Illinois.”

Topic-based groups inform recommendations

Leading up to this meeting, task force members participated in small group discussions on such topics as school funding, teacher preparation, and family and community engagement. At each small group discussion, members talked about key issues, goals, and recommendations that should be included in the culminating action plan. The full task force also met twice in 2013.

The task force plans to issue its recommendations in the summer of 2014.

The effort is supported by a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.