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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Closing the Achievement Gap One Student at a Time

Poverty is a huge factor affecting the performance of our elementary students. Schools, districts and states with a high percentage of low-income families can reasonably cite poverty as one explanation for lower test scores or poor performance in other measures of student achievement.

My concern, however, is always for the individual children in my classroom. At that level, should poverty be any excuse for poor student performance?

In my opinion, absolutely not! Every one of our students can make significant yearly academic progress no matter what the quality of their home life.

I believe a lot in the promise of public education. Our schools are supported by taxes, and every family pays those taxes. In exchange, we promise (or should promise) that we will do our utmost to provide an excellent education for every student who walks through our doors.

Dropout Prevention Starts Early

K-6 is critical to student success. I teach fourth grade, and it's my opinion that elementary teachers have much more impact on the long-term success of a student's academic career than teachers in any grade that follows. If we don't start children off on the right foot, they'll face an uphill battle clear through high school -- if they even make it through high school.

How do we do that? By ensuring that there is a level playing field for each and every child in our class. Here's how.

No Segregation

The first step is to adopt the mindset that every student in our class is absolutely equal, regardless of their background, family circumstances, academic level -- or even their personality. That may seem like a given, but consider whether each of these best practices are being applied consistently in your own classroom.

Students should never be separated for the convenience of the teacher. For example, even if children have multiple IEPs and need to come and go to the special education room frequently, they should not be seated in a group near the door so they can slip in and out without disturbing the rest of the class.

Segregation of this sort automatically puts children into a different category and places them at a disadvantage when interacting with their peers.

Equal Seating

Every classroom will have children who are talkative, disinterested or apathetic. All too often, these children find themselves at a desk at the back of the room -- exactly the opposite of the location where they should be seated. Every child, no matter what attitude he brings into your classroom, deserves his fair share of time sitting in the front row and getting the teacher's full attention -- even if he never responds to it.

No Put Downs

Even slight amounts of verbal antagonism must be absolutely unacceptable. In a close-knit classroom community, no one is teased because of such things as a speech impediment, odd clothing or any element of her personality or way of expressing herself. Our classrooms must be judgment-free zones where any elementary-age child can feel free to be herself, even if she is silly and immature. Once a student knows that others won't make fun of her for just acting naturally, she becomes free to succeed academically because she's no longer leashed to the worry of satisfying the expectations of her peers.

In the successful classroom, every single student must feel that he is a first-class citizen with all the rights that come with that status -- including the right to simply be himself.

Provide the Basics

Children who come from a disadvantaged background may suffer the consequences while at home, but once in school, teachers must use every resource at their disposal to remove impediments to learning.

This means accessing any resources that may be available through our building administration or district to provide:

  • Warm clothing in the winter
  • Access to free or reduced medical care and eyeglasses
  • Therapy for hearing or speech issues
  • Counseling to help deal with problems at home
  • Special education support
  • Transportation (if they qualify as homeless students)
  • Food for weekends and holidays

Fulfilling the Promise of Public Education

After taking all of these steps, do we still have any children that can be classified as "in poverty" while at school? Or do we simply have individuals who are clothed, fed and personally cared for in an accepting and supportive environment? These children may still have academic challenges, but in that regard they're not unlike students from any economic background. We've truly leveled the playing field so that we can now focus on their individual academic needs.

In short, we just have a classroom filled with children -- children who are ready to learn. Now all we have to do is teach like their individual futures depend upon it.

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

BP's picture

I currently work at an elementary school where the majority of the students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. I chose to teach at this school because I believe that I can make a difference in the lives of the children who come from areas as such. As an educator I believe that it is my duty to set high expectations for all children regardless of their socioeconomic background. Every child deserves a quality education and every child deserves a chance at success. It really bothers me that many teachers do not feel the same as I do. Unfortunately there are teachers who set low expectations for students who come from low income families. I believe that teachers who partake in put downs should not be in the teaching profession.

Marlissa's picture
Marlissa
7th Grade Science

Betsy,

I agree with you 110% that poverty is not an excuse for students that are under achievers. Although students and parents use their lack of income as an excuse that is unacceptable. I also agree with your comments relating to segregating students with IEPs. When I review an IEP and I put the accommodations to use, I use them as additional assistance for the students. I still hold the students accountable for their work, and I still seat them in a normal setting allowing them to interact with their peers with as little assistance from their shadow as possible. Great BLOG!

Tricia's picture
Tricia
Pre-K Great lakes, IL

I agree that every child no matter where they come from has the will to be successful. I also agree that a child's early years are the most important. If elementary teachers don't help children love learning at an early age they will not be successful the rest of their educational career. I got great advice while in college that teachers need to be fair to every student but this might not be the same to every student. We need to treat each student at their own. I also believe as a teacher we need to do what ever we can and need to, to make sure our students are successful. Whether this is spending more time with them or getting them the essential things they need to succeed. When becoming a teacher we aren't just teachers to some students we are a lot more. We cannot fail those students. Trust is a big deal to students.

Look forward to reading more blogs from this website. This is my first.

F M King's picture
F M King
Elementary Teacher

As I was reading, this sound like a conversation that is often had and the things that are done in the school where I teach. I totally agree with what you were saying. However, I am a witness to the fact that it is easier said than done. My school is in a low income, high crime area. The teachers I work with are very dedicated to improving the lives of their students. We are working to show our students that their circumstances now do not have to determine their future. In an effort to close the achievement gap, the students must first, feel that they are worthy of better.
Teachers must help the students to understand that despite the short comings of their environment, they are equally deserving of a good education and that they are capable of succeeding.

I

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
Blogger 2014

Malcolm Gladwell shows evidence in his book Outliers that the playing field is very level while children are at school. Both rich and poor children show similar academic growth while they are in school. The achievement gap seems to grow when the children are at home. Rich children go home to an environment more conducive to learning while poor children don't.

I do agree with all the great things said in this thoughtful blog (by an obviously very skilled teacher) as well as the comments. I try to teach my students how to learn, the importance of learning, and why they must continue to learn over the weekend and while on vacation.

Shelly's picture
Shelly
1st Grade Teacher

Closing the achievement gap is something I am very passionate about. I try many things to try and make this happen every day in my room. I have high expectations for all of my students no matter what their socioeconomic status is, what background knowledge they bring to the room, what learning styles they have and what they believe they are capable of. I have goals for each of my students and we come up with those goals together and revisit them often and adjust them as needed. My students know that they are not allowed to just be in my room but must always do their best! I keep all types of "kid work" to show to parents and students throughout the year so that they can see just how much they have grown throughout the year. One of my most important contributors to closing the achievement gap is having a very tight woven sense of community within my room. My students quickly learn to work with others no matter what the project or assignment is. With such a huge sense of community my students tend to never work with the same student at any given time, they never question who they work with and they always find a "good fit" partner to assist them depending on what type of learning the project or assignment might entail. I always want the best for all of my students!!

First Grade Fun's picture
First Grade Fun
New Mexico

I am so glad that you mentiond the importance of a positive environment without ridicule. In my classroom, we use the term "push downs," which is any type of statement that does not benefit another person. Examples of push-downs would be "You are not good at adding" or "I think you have bad handwriting." I always tell my students that if they can't say something to help another person, than they shouldn't say it at all. Instead, we use "push ups," or positive, encouraging words. It's so heartwarming to hear students saying "You're working hard on your behavior today" or "I like that sentence that you wrote." I also make sure that they don't say the phrase "That's easy." My goal is to hit home the idea that not everything is easy for everyone. Its funny when I hear students say "That's easy" and someone will always respond with "Not for every body!"

Rachel D's picture
Rachel D
Kindergarten Teacher

I agree that that poverty should not be an exucse for poor performance in school. I work in a district where poverty is a huge concern. We have programs in place to help the children who face poverty at home - free/reduced lunches, food packages for students to take home for the weekend, we help supply winter clothing, etc. It is important for these students to not feel different from their classmates just because of their families income level. In my classroom I encourage a very positive environment. I do not allow my students to tease or make rude comments toward eachother. Each "put down" equals "two put-ups" in my classroom. I do believe that the lower elementary grades set the foundations for each students successful school career. As an educator I believe it is my job to help set those basic foundations for each child in my classroom.

Callie's picture
Callie
3rd grade teacher from Oceano, California

I work at a school where most students live in poverty, and I completely agree with you that these students can and want to learn. Poverty should never be an excuse for poor student performance. A positive classroom environment is also important for students to feel safe learning. In my class, I really try to emphasize that character counts. We have weekly class meetings and a warm fuzzy jar where students can earn a warm fuzzy when caught doing something nice for another person. Students must also be provided with the basics. At my school, students are provided with warm clothes if needed, school supplies, breakfast and lunch. Unfortunately, with funding being cut, counseling for the students is scarce. This is very disappointing because I have found that the students who come from poverty are some of the most in need for counseling services. Ultimately, each student deserves a teacher who truly cares about them and can provide them with the instruction they need to be successful.

Karla's picture
Karla
Parent and student

I agree very much with you, k-6 is a very critical time in a student's life. It is at this time that students develop the good or bad habits that will affect their future academic success. The "No Segregation" step is very important. When I was in elementary school, the "trouble makers" were seated near the door or in the back of the classroom so that they could be sent out if they acted out. These student were not stupid, they had disorders such as ADHD and ADD. At the time, the rest of the class including myself had no comprehension of their disabilities and because of the way the teachers treated them, we saw them only as trouble makers and they we further isolated them.
Our teachers did none of the things you mentioned and I know these students suffered because of it. They did not receive equal seating and were isolated from the rest of the class. The teachers also verbally put them down in front of everyone. Our teacher would say things like "Why can't you just behave?" or "If you would just listen, I can continue to teach the rest of the class." These kinds of comments would cause everyone to stare at them and think of them not as equals, but as an annoyance. I remember one particular day where one student with ADD was pulled out of the classroom by the teacher while she was yelling at him loudly. As young students, we rolled our eyes and made fun of him because we thought he was stupid and a troublemaker.
From What I learned in my college diversity classes, putting down students can impair their intellectual performance greatly. I'm saddened, looking back on my classmates and knowing what I know now. I know they did not receive the fair treatment that they needed to build a strong educational foundation for their future.

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