BROADENING OUR CONCEPTION OF THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP

 3/7/08

 

            When we think of the so-called achievement gap, we tend to bring to mind the very socially destructive, conscience disturbing difference in performance on standard indicators between minority children in our public schools and their majority peers. We know that minority children often begin school already behind due to poor nutrition and health, lack of a stimulating linguistic environment and parental engagement.  By some estimates, a third of the achievement gap already exists when these children come to school for the first time.  Once in school, the gap often widens as these children with the aid of their teachers struggle to overcome their deficits, more often than not with financial and educational resources far inferior to those of their more affluent peers.  While we donít seem to know what to do about it, we know so much about what contributes to this achievement gap that we even know there are children who either miss significant days of schooling or who are unable to concentrate when they are present because they have never visited a dentist and have constant dental pain as a result, pain that wonít permit their minds to focus.  

            But how do we explain the achievement gap between what children in affluent suburban school districts used to be able to do and what they are capable of now?  Is there a manifestation of the achievement gap that we have not acknowledged?  Have we simply assumed that the kinds of learning difficulties teachers cope with in predominately urban, minority districts has no relationship to what is happening in our more affluent schools?  Just the other day, I sat with our union literacy committee that is meeting to think about our districtís English language arts program.  I listened as elementary teachers spoke candidly and eloquently about how the students they meet in our early grades are less linguistically able than students used to be.  They describe children with hyper-short attention spans, children stunted by endless television watching and computer games, children who havenít been read to sufficiently and engaged by the adults in their world.  Our teachers meet them in classes of twenty plus students, a condition which while it may seem ideal to some, clearly does not allow for the kind of intensive interaction between teacher and student that just might help these students to catch up.  Yet, I believe that while smaller classes would certainly help, there is much more that needs to be done.    

            Our schools need to respond thoughtfully to the profound socio-economic changes that have, in no uncertain terms, made too many of our societyís children ill equipped to learn, not only the kids from impoverished urban and rural settings, but kids living in the Mcmansions and going to what their parents believe are schools with high standards. We need to better equip all of societyís children to learn better.  Rather than sending our children to school to have their minds further numbed by computer driven education (the Bill Gates solution), rather than simply lamenting the fact that they appear to learn less and less each year, we have to build a movement to redesign our schools to counteract the forces in our world that mitigate against the development of the knowledge and skills we all recognize as part of what it means to be educated.   

            If children are coming to our schools without the language skills we used to count on, we need to figure out how to give them those skills.  Beyond doubt, if they donít attain them, whatever we teach them afterwards is of less value to them.  Surely part of helping them acquire these skills is to saturate their hours in school with linguistically challenging activities.  We need to structure as many opportunities for them to speak as we can.  We need to actively teach listening skills, including being part of an audience and the courtesy that needs to go along with that.  We need to immerse them in song, songs with values-laden messages that cultivate good citizenship.  We need to begin in kindergarten to educate them to be intelligent consumers of media rather than the hollowed out victims of them.  We need to read and tell them stories, just as we need to have them tell their own stories, in spoken language first and then when they are able in writing.  We need to find ways to get the most reluctant readers to read Ė read to themselves, read aloud Ė read as a class Ė read in small groups.  More often than not, the reluctant ones are that way because they know they donít read well. In any subject we teach, we need to think about how we can teach the content in ways that broaden their language skills.   

            Speaking of content, we need to remind ourselves of the relationship of content to understanding what we read.   I was talking to a middle school teacher the other day who was recounting a conversation with an eighth grade student.  The student asked her what the word ďhoovesĒ meant.  She was prompted to do so because of a verbal problem on a math assessment that stumped her, not because she was weak in math, but because she didnít understand the vocabulary in the question.  In his recent book The Knowledge Gap, E.D. Hirsch focuses on the extent to which American students do not read well because while they can say the words, they often donít know what they are reading because they are the products of school curricula that do not value content.   

            While we are creating a linguistically challenging school environment, while we are seeking a rich curriculum, we need to find new ways to reach out to parents, coaxing them to restrict television and computer access, teaching them how to support the efforts of the school to teach their children language arts and through them to be more eager and better learners.  We need to find better ways to help our children of immigrant parents who often do not speak English at home.  We need to not only target assistance for the development of their language skills, we must also take on the responsibility to provide a program to help them become more quickly acculturated to American life.  

            Some will say our schools do all of these things.  Iím sure if we were to add up the sum total of what happens in every classroom, we would find that itís true.  But it is more importantly true that we are not focused on a coherent plan to challenge the forces in the lives of our students that limit their literacy.  We dare not fail in this endeavor.

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