BROADENING OUR CONCEPTION OF THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
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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