Chelsea Coffin is the director of the Education Policy Initiative at the D.C. Policy Center.

By Ayodele Ayoola, AFRO Editorial Intern

Chelsea Coffin joined the D.C. Policy Center in 2017 as the Director of the Education Policy Initiative, which seeks to use new data and information to improve outcomes for District students— especially, those that are underprivileged.

Coffin’s research highlights inequities in education and how these tie to other areas such as housing and workforce policies. 

Prior to working with the D.C. Policy Center, she conducted planning analysis at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, carried out research at the World Bank, and taught secondary school with the Peace Corps in Mozambique. 

The AFRO connected with Coffin to learn more about tackling the achievement gap and the importance of diversity in the classroom. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: How has the pandemic affected the achievement gap?

A: Before the pandemic, learning outcomes were on the rise; however, an achievement gap still existed in D.C. During the pandemic, when D.C. schools were virtual, the online learning platform detrimentally impacted disadvantaged students due to limited access to technology and students having to learn in an unfamiliar environment. 

Q: How can increasing the number of Black teachers help Black students?

A: Students must have teachers who look like them. For academic reasons and feelings of belonging. D.C. is considering expanding diversity among its teaching body. Establishing a teacher pipeline in our nation’s capital creates a pathway for prospective high school students to become teachers in the districts they’re familiar with. 

Q: How can diversity be exemplified in school curriculums? 

A: Diversity in curriculums needs to be reevaluated to ensure that Black history and Black literature are incorporated. African-American students can learn better when aspects of their experience and their culture is reflected in their learning. It is also important to modernize curriculums so students become knowledgeable in recent history. Washington, D.C. public schools have already started to orchestrate innovations to school curriculums with new revisions to social studies curriculums adding the election of President Obama.

Q: Can free or reduced school lunch loosen the achievement gap?

A: Affordable school lunches ensure that students who may not be afforded a good meal at home are focused on learning, leading to greater achievement for underprivileged students. 

Q: What ways can local political institutions (state legislatures) tackle the achievement gap?

A: One policy that is available is equitable access to resources and targeting those resources to students who are most at risk. Secondly, local officeholders can institute policies that divert recovery funding from the pandemic relief toward studying the achievement gap and performing research into finding measures to close it. Another way to distribute resources more equitably is by ensuring that property taxes are not funding public schools because less affluent households won’t be able to fund their schools as efficiently as neighborhoods with high-income households.

Q: Do low teacher retention rates impact the achievement gap and how can that be addressed? 

A: The teacher retention rate in Washington, D.C. is around 74 percent with 10 percent of teachers leaving the profession. In predominantly Black neighborhoods like Wards 7 and 8, the teacher retention rate is lower forcing Black students to learn from fewer qualified teachers, which results in poorer performances. To combat this issue, some experts are looking into flexible schedules, which means supporting teacher housing so they live closer to the communities they work in, encouraging them to keep teaching in D.C. public schools. 

Q: How can incorporating technology in schools increase achievement among disadvantaged students?

A: Schools have gotten better at leveraging technology for disadvantaged students. Access to technology needs to be distributed equitably which doesn’t just mean giving students any device but expanding access to devices students can easily use. Increasing access to high-speed internet both in the school building and at home plays a pivotal role in increasing academic performance for disadvantaged students. It is also beneficial for older students to access technology at local universities, particularly for those in dual enrollment classes.

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