Expanded Thoughts on Narrowing the Achievement Gap

Poppenga-2by Bob Poppenga

The educational “achievement gap” refers to differences in academic performance between groups of students. It is most often used to refer to differences in academic performance (e.g., grades, standardized-test scores, dropout rates, or college-admission rates) between Latino and African American students and their Caucasian and Asian peer groups. The term is also applied to student academic performance differences based upon family income, gender, learning disabilities, and English language proficiency. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001focused the nation’s attention on trying to close the achievement gap through various targeted interventions. Despite intense efforts to close the gap, only modest progress has been made since 2001. However, there are a number of strategies that can help, although no single strategy is completely effective when used in isolation. Unfortunately, some useful strategies like creating smaller schools or year round school are unlikely to be implemented due to lack of resources or political opposition.   The following are some strategies potentially applicable to Davis schools:

  • Provide as many early learning opportunities for children at risk as possible. One interesting comment that I heard from a seasoned K-12 educator was that children who are not reading at grade level by 3rd grade are at significantly higher risk of academic failure than children who are reading at an appropriate level by 3rd There is good evidence that even children from low income families are as academically ready to start school as children from higher income families when they are provided an engaging home learning environment. Thus, programs to help parents learn how to provide a positive home learning environment for their pre-school children would probably pay dividends.
  • While early education is critical to getting off on the right academic foot, maintaining academic readiness over a long summer vacation can be challenging for low income children.   Personally, I would like to see at least a four week summer enrichment program for at risk students. Such a program should not be focused on sitting at a desk trying to catch up in math or English, but should be more focused on providing expanded experiences that many children from higher income families are able to take advantage of during summer break.
  • We need do everything that we can to ensure quality teaching in every classroom.   In my view, this means not only hiring good teachers but providing them with a quality professional development system and an effective peer mentoring program (especially for early career teachers) to help them develop and expand their teaching skills. This also means that teachers should receive appropriate, frequent, and timely feedback on how each student is doing in class so that problems can be identified early and corrective actions implemented.   Appropriate, frequent, and timely feedback is not the same as high-stakes, standardized testing of children which, in my view, does more harm than good.
  • More contact time with students, either through a longer day or longer school year, can help. California’s recent budget crisis resulted in school districts shortening the school year by several days. As resources slowly return to schools, serious consideration should be given to modest lengthening of the school year.
  • Lastly, as I wrote in a previous Vanguard commentary (August 2), there is emerging evidence that short, appropriately formulated psychological interventions at critical stages of a child’s education (transition to junior high school or high school for example) can help at risk children overcome their self-doubts and negative stereotypes about their abilities and lead to better long term academic performance. Such approaches should be investigated for use in our district.

Many people have argued that unless we can solve the problem of poverty in this country, we will not solve the achievement gap based upon family income. Poverty has actually increased in the U.S. over the last several years and eliminating poverty is not going to occur anytime soon.   I think that it is more useful to use the term “opportunity gap” to characterize differences in academic performance based upon family income and to try to find creative and cost-effective ways to provide more opportunities for at-risk children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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24 Comments

  1. Frankly

    Many people have argued that unless we can solve the problem of poverty in this country, we will not solve the achievement gap based upon family income. Poverty has actually increased in the U.S. over the last several years and eliminating poverty is not going to occur anytime soon. I think that it is more useful to use the term “opportunity gap”

    I think this is absolutely a better way to consider the needs of students. And doing so expands and connects to the consideration about health and welfare of the general human condition. And related to this, I think we really need to think about the mission of education. The focus on creating good citizens and then dumping them off into a increasingly complicated world is not working. The mission should be to create economically self-sufficient adults. And to get there the students will need to develop certain life knowledge and skills… including the development of a strong moral compass.

    But I believe we have allowed education to go too far on the humanities side of the curriculum. We are wasting precious limited teaching resources on instruction that shoots too high on the needs hierarchy and causes engagement problems. Many students can not understand the abstract purpose for this stuff and engagement falls. Teach life skills from a point of practicality and hands-on methods are less nebulous and more connected to real life… they are more likely to keep engagement levels high and students will grow and develop into better employees… and that will lead to them having a better life.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Good points. We used to have “shop”, home economics, even boxing and rifle clubs (which were useful then)… why have we eliminated shop? One of the main reasons, I’m guessing, is that the education establishment is so against “tracking”… but have you seen the money a good mechanic or electrician can make!!?? Another is that schools tend to be female-dominated.

      1. Tia Will

        “Another is that schools tend to be female-dominated.”

        Perhaps I am wrong, but it would seem that you are implying that “shop” would not appeal to women. This will come as a surprise to the automobile, tank, and airplane mechanics in my practice.

        1. wdf1

          But I agree that without awareness how these programs fit into the larger scheme, and without adequate publicity and public information about the existence of these programs, they are in danger of being eliminated. The fact that you didn’t seem to be aware of these programs isn’t a good sign, for instance.

          1. DavisAnon

            No shop classes at Holmes this year. No teacher apparently (I don’t know what happened to the one they had last year). I believe the high school still has shop classes. It seems to me that some type of Life Skills class would be helpful – especially for students planning to head out into the workforce after college. I suspect most kids have very little understanding of money management, investing, budgeting, basic skills needed for a business environment, home ec skills, etc. that turn out to be very important when you’re trying to live on your own.

            And as for the social justice class mentioned by Frankly, there is a “Race and Social Justice Class” at DHS as one choice (of three?) for meeting the 11th grade requirement for Social Studies. The others are AP US History and the regular US History class. I don’t know whether Da Vinci has a similar class.

          2. wdf1

            DavisAnon: No shop classes at Holmes this year. No teacher apparently (I don’t know what happened to the one they had last year).

            The shop teacher took a year leave of absence, I understand. Hope he returns. Seems like he had a really good thing going.

  2. Tia Will

    Frankly

    I think it is predictable and understandable that as a businessman you tend to see being “a better employee” as meaning that the individual with have a better life. I see “having a strong moral compass” as an equal prerequisite to having a better life. Being able to provide for oneself and one’s family in our current ruthless economic system is certainly a necessity. But “being a good employee” if your business is inherently corrupt ( the banking fiasco, dodging taxes, allowing environmental pollution for profit, lying about the efficacy and safety of your products with the tobacco and some pharmaceutical companies as prime examples), while profitable is to me hardly a mark of “success”.

    To me being a “successful ” human being is about much more than our earning potential and yet that seems to be the measure that most people are using to define an “achievement gap”, I do not believe that we have gone too far to the “humanities” side. I believe that what we have done is to create a false dichotomy with “humanities” on one side and “stem” on the other while ignoring the importance of developing well rounded human beings who have the ability to utilize all of their interests and talents, a true mark of success.

    1. Frankly

      Tia, Consider the hierarchy of needs…

      1. Safety Needs
      – Personal security
      – Financial security
      – Health and well-being
      – Safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts

      2. Love and Belonging
      – Friendship
      – Intimacy
      – Family

      3. Esteem

      4. Self-Actualization

      You and other seem pretty dismissive of the need to focus on the first step/level, and instead demand that we focus curriculum on #3 and #4. But this is why engagement suffers for a percentage of students. You can’t skip steps/levels. It does not compute for someone having to attend a “good citizen” class when their lower-level securities are not satisfied.

      The second step/level is one that the system cannot really address (government is not a loving institution), but it can certainly tool around the challenges and provide options for students that lack strong family connections, or that have personality or health challenges that might cause them to suffer deficits and insecurities in this second step/level of needs fulfillment.

      The entire range of human needs should be addressed, but individually, not collectively. For most people, it not until esteem and self-actualization needs are touched that the passion for learning kicks in. And we never get there if their lower level needs are not met.

      The problem is the education gap (or opportunity gap) was been growing wider… the system is more and more moving away from a curriculum and choice that allows students to grow a sense that they are developing these first step/level needs fulfillment and the feelings of personal security that comes with it.

      Instead of required social justice classes, we should be adding electives like personal financial management and industrial arts. Kids struggling at the lower rungs of needs will better connect with the more concrete and less abstract training and development.

      I also think every high school and middle school should run a small farm or large garden, and that schools should serve healthy breakfast and lunch to all students using the food produced, but all students should be given a job at the school where their performance will be graded and they earn credits that they can use to purchase snacks and other products at the school store.

      1. Don Shor

        There are very few “social justice classes.” I don’t actually know of any, but I haven’t perused the whole course catalogue. The school system does not “focus curriculum on #3 and #4.” Students take the usual range of classes intended to meet the university “a – g” subject requirements. The Davis schools are focused on getting kids ready to go to college. That is very likely what most Davis parents want the schools here to do, and given the college entrance rate from DJUSD I would say they succeed at it. I think there is a high level of parental satisfaction with the Davis schools, largely for that reason.

        They also have classes in industrial arts, though as I noted earlier I don’t know to what extent those are emphasized, or how aware students are of those options. It is a reasonable critique that Davis schools tend to track people into college prep, and perhaps aren’t very good at identifying students who would benefit from the available vocational and tech courses.
        Students also have the option of taking courses via independent study, which allows them to work during daytime if needed or desired.
        I think you are pretty unfamiliar with the course offerings and teaching practices in the Davis schools.

      2. wdf1

        Frankly: Instead of required social justice classes, we should be adding electives like personal financial management and industrial arts. Kids struggling at the lower rungs of needs will better connect with the more concrete and less abstract training and development.

        Specifically required? It is one of several options to meet a social studies/history. This was also a course that a number of students at DHS wanted. I know that you poo-poo this class regularly, but if it offers history in a way that engages students — several sections are offered — and if it can meet curricular rigor, then I think it’s nice that the district could respond to student interests.

      3. wdf1

        Frankly: I also think every high school and middle school should run a small farm or large garden, and that schools should serve healthy breakfast and lunch to all students using the food produced

        I don’t know for certain about the high school, but the JH campuses in Davis — at least Emerson and Harper, that I know of — have campus gardens. Many of the elementary sites do. And in many cases vegetables produced in the garden are used for school menu offerings. source Don might know more about this.

      4. Tia Will

        Franklly

        “You and other seem pretty dismissive of the need to focus on the first step/level,”

        I simply do not see how you can accuse me of being dismissive of the first level. I have stated many times my position that every man, woman and child should have their basic needs met through a living stipend for any contribution at all that they make to the society which for children would mean going to school. In any system that I would advocate, all of the basic needs would already be addressed and therefore would not need to come into this conversation at all. I have said this repeatedly, and you are equally as consistent in ignoring it.

        We are in agreement that the society can do little to help to meet the second level needs in the society as we have constructed it. I do not believe that this has to be the case, and that a much more caring and loving society could be created if we were to give up even a modicum of our “me first” attitude which is the dominant model in our society. There are in existence other societies which place much more emphasis on family and community than we do. Perhaps we could choose to stop “thumping ourselves on our proverbial chests” about how we are “number one” in everything long enough to learn about how to create stronger communities.

        “Kids struggling at the lower rungs of needs will better connect with the more concrete and less abstract training and development.”

        This is such a generalization that I do not even know where to start except to point out that I was one of those kids. I definitely would not have done “better” either economically or in terms of personal fulfillment had someone decided that because I was poor and my father was dead and my mother read at an elementary school level, that I would better connect with the “more concrete and less abstract training and development. A large part of why I did well is because I was lucky enough to have a few teachers and other mentors who did not classify me on the basis of my “pedigree” but rather encouraged me to develop as much as I could in all areas. Kids can change and improve, but I believe that they are far less, not more likely to do so, if someone drops them into the neat little box of low potential and decides that they should be steered in a given direction before they have had any chance to explore the possibilities for themselves.

        I am very surprised that you, having written many times about the deleterious effects of “low expectations” for certain groups are now touting that very strategy for some who are struggling.

        1. Frankly

          Not every kid is wired to become a MD. My high expectations target life after formal education. Education is only a means to an end of a happy and adequately prosperous life.

      5. wdf1

        Frankly: The second step/level is one that the system cannot really address (government is not a loving institution), but it can certainly tool around the challenges and provide options for students that lack strong family connections, or that have personality or health challenges that might cause them to suffer deficits and insecurities in this second step/level of needs fulfillment.

        These issues are connected to school climate. Often what appeals to students about athletics, performing arts, journalism, and a number of other clubs and organizations is that it creates a sense of belonging. And meeting that need is more fundamental on the hierarchy of needs, so that’s why schools shouldn’t cut such programs. It may not work for all students, but it does for a sizable percentage.

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    I know that the education lobby w as against NCLB, especially because it held teachers and schools accountable, and it is interesting that so few articles mention the documented successes of NCLB. Why is that?

    US Department of Education

    “Multiple studies and reports show that student achievement is rising across America:

    “The long-term Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) results, released in July 2005, showed elementary school student achievement in reading and math at all-time highs and the achievement gap closing.

    “For America’s nine-year-olds in reading, more progress was made in five years than in the previous 28 combined.
    “America’s nine-year-olds posted the best scores in reading (since 1971) and math (since 1973) in the history of the report. “America’s 13-year-olds earned the highest math scores the test ever recorded.
    “Reading and math scores for African American and Hispanic nine-year-olds reached an all-time high.
    “Math scores for African American and Hispanic 13-year-olds reached an all-time high.
    “Achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American nine-year-olds and between white and Hispanic nine-year-olds are at an all-time low.

    “The state-by-state Nation’s Report Card results, released in October 2005, showed improved achievement in the earlier grades in which NCLB is focused. In the last two years, the number of fourth-graders who learned their fundamental math skills increased by 235,000—enough to fill 500 elementary schools!

    “Across-the-board improvements were made in mathematics and in fourth-grade reading.
    “African American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in a number of categories.
    “Forty-three states and the District of Columbia either improved academically or held steady in all categories (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math).”

    http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/overview/importance/nclbworking.html

    Were the successes of NCLB better in the lower grades, but didn’t work as well in higher grades?

  4. DurantFan

    Bob:Thank you for your time, talent, and expertise shown within this article. Certainly poverty and lack of opportunity can negatively affect achievement in young (elementary school) students among others. As you know from recent developments, many young students living within the Royal Oaks Trailer Park area continue to face a variety of adverse real life conditions that clearly reduce their ultimate potential to achieve academically.

    Fortunately for them, It appears that the Marguerite Montgomery Elementary (MME) School trachers and support staff are doing an excellent job in reducing the achievement gap by maintaining a loving, personable, welcoming, and learning “oasis” for the young children from the Park. Even though the Park may not technically be “withiin” the City of Davis, MME certainly “is”. As such, this situation is certainly within the jurisdiction of the School Board, and could be an issue during the current School Board election..

    Please provide your thoughts/ concerns regarding this matter if you desire. Thank you.

  5. South of Davis

    Does Davis have an “attendance” gap? I’m betting that it does and it is probably one more thing that creates the “achievement” gap?

    I just read about the “attendance” gap in Oakland (see link below) that reminded me of a teacher who told me how hard it was to teach a class with rids of one race that did the all the homework and never missed class along with kids of another race who almost never did the homework and would often miss a full week of class…

    http://m.sfgate.com/education/article/Deep-racial-divide-in-Oakland-schools-5784072.php

    1. wdf1

      From time to time the school board has reviewed attendance. Overall it was very high, in the 90’s somewhere from what I remember. I’m not aware of any “attendance gap” in DJUSD. Students from migrant families have issues of not being around during portions of the regular school year. There is a summer program that they participate in that makes up for some of it.

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