By Bob Poppenga
Can thoughtful, simple, and cost effective psychological interventions help? Research results show promise!
Closing the “achievement gap” is one of the most vexing problems currently facing public education in the U.S. What is the “achievement gap”? The term can be used in a number of contexts, but it is most commonly used to refer to differences in various measures of academic performance (e.g., grades, standardized test scores, graduation rates) between students from low income families (generally poorer academic performance) versus those from more affluent families (generally higher academic performance).
While low-income families include students from every ethnicity, African-American and Latino students are disproportionately represented. Achievement gaps have been identified based upon criteria other than ethnicity such as those based upon gender, English-language proficiency, or learning disabilities.
Despite modest success in closing the achievement gap associated with family income since enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a significant disparity still exists. Shockingly, only about 50% of male students from minority backgrounds graduate from high school on time.
A variety of approaches have been employed or have been recommended to help close the achievement gap such as smaller class sizes, smaller schools, expanded early childhood programs, raising academic standards, improving the quality of teaching available to low income students, and encouraging minority students to take more academically rigorous courses (Educational Projects in Education Research Center, 2011).
M. Night Shyamalan suggested five keys to closing the gap based upon the best available evidence in his book I Got Schooled. The keys included: 1) no “roadblock” teachers (i.e., teachers who lack the necessary tools to teach effectively), 2) principals who are given the time and resources to be in classrooms observing and providing feedback to teachers, 3) appropriate and continuous feedback to teachers on how students are performing, 4) smaller schools, and 5) longer school years.
Although exceedingly hard to calculate, he estimated that implementing the five keys in those schools with high achievement gaps would cost $45 to $50 billion more per year (which sounds like a lot of money but, in reality, such an amount would be a relatively modest increase of about 10% in current overall K-12 educational spending).
Unfortunately, additional resources of this magnitude are unlikely to become available in the foreseeable future. Diane Ravitch, a fierce defender of public education, in her recent book Reign of Error, suggests that the achievement gap will never be fully closed until the problem of poverty is eliminated (we all know how well we’ve done in that regard despite spending large sums of money).
Amazingly, approximately 1 in 5 children in the U.S. live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. I suspect that many Davis residents would be surprised by the number of children within DJUSD boundaries who come from low income families (about 1 in 5, similar to the national rate).
Given the low probability of substantial increases in educational funding targeted to strategies known to help close the achievement gap, are there other ways to help narrow the gap that would not take significant resources to implement and that would potentially have a long-lasting impact? New research suggests that there are.
A recent article in the NY Times Magazine highlighted a significant college “graduation gap” (mirroring the situation in high school graduation rates) between high achieving students from low income families and those from more affluent families. An accompanying graph indicated that high achieving students, as measured by SAT scores in the 1200 to 1600 range, from low-income families graduated at a rate of 44% compared to a graduation rate of 82% for students from more affluent families.
The thrust of the article was that if the college graduation gap, and by extrapolation the high school graduation gap, is to be closed it is necessary to address struggling students’ doubts, misconceptions, and fears about school in addition to the more traditional concerns about academic preparation and financial issues.
One approach has been championed by David Yeager, a University of Texas at Austin faculty member, who is a leading researcher on the psychology of education. He believes that students often fail to live up to their potential as a result of their fears, anxieties, and doubts about their ability; these feelings are particularly damaging during times of educational transition (e.g., students entering 7th grade or freshman years of high school or college).
Yeager and his colleagues have shown remarkable and long-lasting results for at-risk students utilizing targeted and thoughtful psychological interventions that require as little as one class period. The goal is to change how students think and feel about school and help students take advantage of learning opportunities.
As Yeager and colleagues state “Teaching students that intelligence can be developed can help them view struggles in school not as a threat but as an opportunity to grow and learn.” Yeager goes on to say that such interventions complement, but don’t replace other educational reforms such as teaching academic content or improving teacher skills.
As a School Board Trustee, I would work with all community stakeholders and outside experts to explore how such cost effective approaches to closing the achievement gap can be applied and assessed in our schools.
I will work diligently to find creative and cost-effective ways to enhance early educational opportunities for all children and to provide summer enrichment programs for at-risk students at every grade level.
As one of the most educated cities in the U.S., with a world-class University in our backyard, dedicated and talented teachers, and involved parents, we should be leading the way in narrowing educational gaps associated with income disparities.
Bob Poppenga is a professor of veterinary toxicology at UC Davis; he joined the UCD faculty in 2004. He is presently a candidate for the DJUSD School Board.
Who Gets to Graduate? by Paul Tough, May 15, 2014, New York Times Magazine
Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions by David Yeager, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen, Kappen, February 2013, pages 62-65.