At one low-income elementary school in Rapid City, South Dakota, Thanksgiving is part of the school curriculum for young students.
Children make Pilgrim hats; color turkeys in brown, orange, and red; and learn about the origins of the first shared meal between the Pilgrims and American Indians. One teacher brings in a traditional Thanksgiving meal — including turkey and trimmings — to share with the class, to the absolute delight of her first-graders.
“Most of them had never seen anything like it. They were used to eating frozen pizza on Thanksgiving,” said the teacher, Su, who has been an educator for 20 years. Most of her kids lacked even the most basic experiences of community. “For some, their whole life is living in a weekly hotel.” For the most part, according to Su, these kids experience very little engaged parenting, a factor frequently cited in discussions about the socioeconomic achievement gap in education.
Differing Explanations and Proposed Solutions for the Achievement Gap
The socioeconomic achievement gap — the phenomenon of students from higher-income families outperforming their relatively low-income peers — is one of the most-discussed issues in education. But it’s a difficult problem to solve. As is the case with climate change, many observers believe it’s real, acknowledging that the evidence shows a massive and consistent trend of underachievement among poor, primarily minority children. But how to solve this complex problem remains contested and, in many cases, unaddressed.
This situation is profoundly upsetting to some, since as a nation, our narrative has been that schools are the very institutions that provide equal opportunities for all. Education advocates argue that we must first begin to address inequality in our public schools if we hope fundamentally to alter the larger issue of poverty in society. Others, though, make the case that improving the public schools will not affect society’s inequities, asserting that the so-called “gap” is a symptom, not a cause, of the social order in the U.S. today.
Most striking in this discussion is the differences in perception between those who analyze the achievement gap and those who experience it: Politicians point to very different solutions for the achievement gap than do teachers, who spend their days working with children.
Measuring the Achievement Gap
In 1969, the National Center for Education Statistics created the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to measure student achievement in a range of academic subjects in selected states around the country, with the aim of establishing a national profile of educational outcomes. Beginning in 1990, this effort was expanded to include all states. Small samplings of children are now tested at three different grades (fourth, eighth, and twelfth) for the various academic subjects, and larger groups at three different ages (8, 12, and 17) in the critical areas of math and reading only. NAEP questions remain the same from year to year and state to state, a pattern that allows stakeholders to track student progress over time nationally and to compare outcomes among states. (By contrast, state assessments, such as those mandated under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), are aligned to each individual state’s learning standards, a fact that makes it impossible to contrast one state’s results with another’s.)
Relying on trend data from sources like NCES, achievement gaps can be understood as statistically-significant disparities in academic performance. These gaps can be found in high school and college graduation rates, standardized test scores, college enrollment, and school disciplinary actions.
NAEP results are reported broadly (in what has come to be known as The Nation’s Report Card) at the national and state levels. They also include breakdowns based on students’ socioeconomic, racial, and other characteristics. Of course, race and income are considerably easier to identify than many factors in students’ lives (like parental support at home, or whether a child ate lunch, for example), and accordingly, demographic traits have become a proxy for an arguably more complex set of contributors to educational outcomes.
To call learning differences among demographic groups a “gap” is a bit of misnomer — these are more akin to a canyon. According to Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, an institute devoted to closing the achievement gap, differences in student outcomes among white, black, and Hispanic children are vast:
In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which measures students' proficiency in reading and math, reported that 42 percent of white fourth-grade students and 16 percent of black fourth-grade students are proficient in reading. In math, 52 percent of white fourth-grade students and 17 percent of black fourth-grade students are proficient. There is not one school district [with] NAEP [results] in which more than 25 percent of black or Hispanic eighth-grade students are proficient in reading or math.
While none of these percentages is especially heartening, the fact that fewer than two out of 10 black fourth-graders and one out of four black or Hispanic eighth-graders met national benchmarks for reading and math is alarming. With so many students falling behind grade-level expectations at such early ages, the likelihood becomes increasingly small that low-scoring students will progress through high school with the skills and knowledge needed to enter college or the workplace. And without higher education or workforce success, it is probable that poverty will persist when these children reach adulthood — and that the cycle will continue with the next generation.
The Role of Politics
Closing the achievement gap is an issue that garners considerable attention come election season. “Closing the achievement gap that exists in too many cities and rural areas is right. More accountability is right,” said President Obama in his 2008 What's Possible for Our Children campaign speech. “The word gap leads to an achievement gap and has lifelong consequences,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in speeches throughout 2014. Presidential hopeful and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, while speaking of his education record at a New Hampshire business roundtable in March 2015, said that his was "... one of the few states that has actually had a narrowing of the achievement gap based on income, or based on race or ethnicity.”
While it may not seem as if there would be a downside to discussing the need for all public school children to have a shot at receiving a high-quality education, there can be. Politics and policy — particularly regarding education spending — can get divisive. One concern, for example, is that devoting the resources necessary to improve student outcomes in struggling schools may mean lower spending for well-funded, high-achieving suburban schools. Such a shift could pose a political gamble for lawmakers who, while they may genuinely want to redistribute funding allocations to help address the differences in learning outcomes, risk alienating constituents in wealthier, higher-performing districts — which tend to be comprised of people who reliably vote and make campaign contributions.
Changing the Conversation
Some education policy leaders have signaled that the conversation about ”the gap” needs to change if they are going to be successful in galvanizing support for improving student progress. For instance, Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) connects education researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to address the underlying causes of differential learning outcomes. At AGI, professors prefer the term “excellence with equity” over “closing the achievement gap,” according to Ronald Ferguson, AGI’s faculty director. As he explained, “the folks whose kids are on the top end of the achievement gap — what stake do they have in closing the achievement gap? But they all care about excellence.” To that end, “if we close the achievement gaps compared to external benchmarks, to the statewide average for white students for example, and move everybody upward relative to that, then everybody else can root for everybody else’s children in the community at the same time that there is a gap to be closed and you can celebrate the closing of that.” In other words, how we, collectively, talk about the achievement gap affects how we address it — or don’t.
Still, no matter the term used, the achievement gap endures. And many experts agree that it is caused by myriad factors, including poverty, lack of early childhood education, meager family support, culturally-biased testing, underperforming schools, and lower academic expectations for poor and minority students.
Some school programs, such as universal pre-kindergarten, free breakfast, free or reduced-cost lunches, and literacy coaches, help address some of the disparities in students’ lives that may contribute to educational success.
But there are other solutions that numbers don’t quite capture — and to help the public understand these, teachers and administrators can provide invaluable insights.
Lessons From a TFA Grad
There are so many factors that go into figuring out whether certain programs work to bridge the achievement gap that it can be hard to prove some gains statistically and scientifically. Teachers and school leaders have their own stories about what works, and many of the solutions that they identify appear to have a significant impact on student success.
Nick Graham worked for Teach for America and then for several years as a middle school educator, mainly in Washington Heights in New York City. He doesn’t see the achievement gap as a school issue, but more the result of “underlying inequities in society, economic and otherwise.” In his time in the classroom, Graham epitomized the teacher who cared. “I loved, loved, loved Teach for America. My students were my first family before I met my wife. I put hours and hours into it.” He labored over his lesson plans and classroom lectures. He did home visits and even found time to run the juggling, drum, and running clubs at his school.
Graham remembers going to visit many of his students’ families in their homes, which were mainly apartments in low-income neighborhoods in upper Manhattan. “A television would be on 24 hours a day. Their homes were not geared towards study.” At parent–teacher conferences, there was a lot of guidance he could provide to parents, but he kept it simple. “At every parent conference, I would condense my thoughts into one recommendation. Most often, I would say, ‘You need to set up a space in your home for your child to do homework.’”
Graham took a “Mr. Rogers” approach with his students, remaining unflaggingly positive as he gave out stickers for good behavior. He found that one determinant of success as a teacher was how much the kids perceived that he (or other educators) cared.
You have to keep students hopeful. You have to show them a new kind of respect. You have to show them that you really care for them. In middle school, they look like adults, but they are children.
While positivity was an effective strategy, the hardline approach didn’t work for him.
These kids are better at hating than you could ever be. They are better at disruption. They come from these environments where they have to be very stoic on the streets. You can’t win by trying to tell them off. You have to be a leader by wooing them.
To close the achievement gap, in other words, teachers need to find what their students do well, and encourage them to do more of it — and stay in communication with families.
Lessons From a KIPP School Leader
Other educators who are successfully teaching students in underserved communities echo Graham’s sentiment.
“You can’t lose them in middle school,” said Tracy McDaniel, founder and principal of the KIPP Reach College Preparatory in Oklahoma City. His middle school is a 2012 Blue Ribbon winner, often cited as one of the country’s best schools. And that is best among all schools, not just best-performing for a low-income, high-minority school.
Fourteen years ago, McDaniel was principal of a middle school in the heart of a predominantly African-American, poor community in northeast Oklahoma City. It was the lowest-performing school in the state, and his mandate was to change that. He worked like crazy, and in a year, the school was no longer at the bottom, having made it to the next threshold.
Everyone was excited about the gains. People told him, “The school is doing the best it can with the high poverty rate, parents in prison, single mothers … all the normal excuses of why schools cannot succeed.” He thought this thinking was off. He didn’t believe that Oklahoma sports coaches would be satisfied with incremental improvements, so why would he be happy going from last place to near-last? He was tapped to help lead a new KIPP school that was forming, so he aimed to win — like any successful coach.
Sports is king in this community and in this state. [In sports] they have a growth mindset. Oklahoma coaches — we get it. We get it in sports. We just don’t get it in academics.
To him, success was about expectations. At KIPP, as in sports, school leaders insist that students and educators work hard. The network videotapes teachers to provide feedback and improve their teaching. You need professional development and teacher coaching, McDaniel has asserted, particularly to help educators keep students engaged in school.
It’s like Serena Williams. Every time I watch her, she has a coach in the stands. Why does she need it? She’s the best.
She needs a coach so that she can continue to be the best.
McDaniel explained that parents of kids in struggling schools are often not aware of the achievement gap, or of the fact that their own children are not reaching grade-level standards. He said that many parents in his community worked a full-time job with another part-time position on the side. They sent their kids to the local district school, which may have had an F rating, because it was the one every kid in the neighborhood attended. These families understood that the school wasn’t great, but what this meant for their own children sometimes didn’t register. When families moved to his KIPP school, McDaniel often had to have frank conversations about their child’s achievement.
What I hear the most is the parents do recognize that the school is low-performing. What they don’t understand is that their child is low-performing, too. I am the first one to tell the parents, ‘Your child failed the state test.’ They tell me, ‘But she got an A in the class, and she got rewards for reading.’
McDaniel would explain that the bar was set so low in many public schools that it looked like their children were doing well — even when they were falling below grade-level expectations. “We get our kids in here in fifth grade. Those kids probably have had homework five times in their whole life. They come here, and they get homework five times in the first week,” says McDaniel.
The KIPP network has 183 charter schools in which 70,000 students — the majority of whom come from low-income families — are educated. It also partners with many colleges and private foundations to help students enroll in and graduate from higher-ed institutions. With 44 percent of former KIPP students earning a bachelor’s degree, the network’s four-year college completion rate is four times that of other public schools with similar demographic composition, according to KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini. Contrast that with the national college completion rate of 31 percent, and KIPP’s accomplishments become even clearer.
“We put a man on the moon in 1969. This country can do whatever it wants to do if [we] have a will to do it,” said McDaniel.
Certainly, policymakers, researchers, and education leaders provide valuable insights to help us understand student achievement in the U.S. But it’s vital that teachers and school administrators become central to the conversation – they are, after all, the experts working with our children each day.
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