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

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

Timothy Brinkley's picture
Timothy Brinkley
teacher researcher entrepreneur

While I agree that all student can learn, I believe that differentiated curriculum, instruction, and assessment is one of the best ways to close the achievement gap. Tomlinson, Brighton, and Hertberg (2003) suggest differentiated instruction involves understanding each students' interests, readiness, and learning profile. The issue of poverty is very real and I believe special consideration needs to be made for those from that background. As you rightly suggest, "providing the basics" is essential and "no put downs" is important for establishing a safe learning environment.

However, Paul D. Slocumb (2000) says "Treating all students equally, however, results in singular
identification processes." I believe educators need to read what Ruby Payne and Paul Slocumb (2000) say about giftedness in poverty and "Poverty does not restrict a student's ability to learn" (2009), educators need to understand that the formal school classroom has many built-in, often middle class, barriers to learning for those coming from poverty; however, if educators know what they are, they can help students overcome them.

Susan Stock's picture

I am so in agreement with the idea that differentiated instruction can make all students an integral part of their class. This puts all the responsibility on the classroom teacher. It involves a teaching style that is not lecture based or involves the teacher as the only expert. Teachers need to open the classroom to the thinkers, movers and shakers and carefully orchestrate the learning into many different "parts" as in music. My heartbreaking moments in my school are when the gen ed teacher refers to the resource students as Mrs. Stock's kids or has them leave the room with a paraeducator during work time. I have a shirt with the logo "All children have gifts, they just open them at different times."

Ms. Trust's picture
Ms. Trust
Ph.D. Student in Education (Teaching & Learning)

This is an interesting read. I definitely agree that turnaround efforts for low-performing, low SES schools needs to start at the elementary level. I've seen firsthand how far away from proficient 3rd graders were in southeast D.C. and I am not surprised that by the time these students reach 8th grade they are already 3-4 grade levels behind. I also agree that impoverished students need food, clothing, shelter, health care and that is a lot to provide, especially if the school is in a poor community.

However, the students that I worked with went to home to empty apartments, without food, slept on floors, had to take care of siblings, and many times were in abused relationships. Bringing these kids to the front of the classroom and being positive and not nearly enough to help these students succeed. They need to trust you. You need to build strong relationships with them and understand their home lives. You need to realize that when you teach, they are more focused on the real world outside of school (i.e., what will I eat this weekend).

I believe it's possible to close the achievement gap, someday. But, I think it's more important that teachers build strong relationships with students and meet students at their own level, allow them to open up, and then challenge them to an appropriate level.

Stephanie's picture

I agree with the basics of your post. Students need to feel welcomed in their classroom, many need that stable environment they do not receive at home. I teach fifth grade in a Title I school, many of my students go home to empty houses, and do not eat until breakfast the following day. Students do not leave all their "baggage" at the door. They need to be able to trust their teacher fully. Teachers need to worry about creating a stable and trusting environment for students if they would like to see academic improvement.
My question would be, how do we improve our students reading scores? Many students are reading far below grade level. Many of my students do not have access to books at home, and their parents do not model reading for them. If we can close that achievement gap in reading, we can hopefully close the gap in many other subject areas.

I enjoyed reading your post, it has given me food for thought.

Nicole Mortimer's picture
Nicole Mortimer
First Grade Teacher, Winter Garden, Florida

I think the idea of closing the achievement gap is something that all educators are faced with. However the complexities that cause the gap in the first place are not necessarily so easy to overcome. This post takes into consideration a small fraction of factors that contribute to the achievement gap. While I agree that all students are capable of learning, parental expectations, mobility, prior experiences and poor health care are all barriers that were not addressed in this post. Of course as educators we can't combat these things on our own and I think that explicit instructional strategies such as equitable seating and differentiated instruction are a great starting point.

Tara Fowler's picture
Tara Fowler
9-12 Mathematics Teacher

I find you article very interesting and relevant to education. To me education is about equity not equally. Equity between races and cultures as well as gender equity. I feel that it's all right to acknowledge difference between the students we teach. If an educator says they are "color blind" then that's not a good thing to be. Embrace our students' difference in who they are and how they learn. When we do that we can make the learning for all of our students better, but especially for our minority students and the low-income poverty level students because how they learn matters.

Amy's picture
Fourth & Fifth grade teacher from Iowa

I work in a school where most of our students are in poverty. We offer free before and after school services as well as provide shoes, coats, hats, supplies, and food for the weekend.

I whole heartedly agree that we need to be careful how we treat students that receive services for special education. I work at a school where we have co-teaching so all the services are received in the classroom and for most subjects, the special education teacher and I have mixed groups of students. There still is some stigma about certain kids because they quickly realize each other's strengths and weaknesses.

One question I have is, once there is differentiation in place for students and they have basic needs met, do we consider their outlook on learning? Is that where creating a safe learning environment (very early) comes in to create a positive school experience?

My other big question to the post is how to create the "no put down" attitude? Especially in the upper grades?

Amber Hayhurst's picture
Amber Hayhurst
7th grade math teacher from Romney, WV

I teach middle school and I daily see how lack of an academic and social foundation effect students. I liked your point about equal seating. Sometime, unfortunately, it is really easy to place students in the back of the room if they seem uninterested or if they are a behavior problem. I also work very hard with the no put downs. Students have to give two complements if they say something negative about a classmate.

Kelly's picture
First grade teacher

I am in complete agreement with your statement about put downs. You would think this would be common place but too often I have come across teachers that put students down. As an educator of students in poverty situations, we have to remember that some times they experience hard relationships at home. Not having enough (money, food, clothing, time, etc..) can be stressful. A classroom should be a safe environment for all students. If you are putting them down then they do not feel safe and will shut down. At that point all learning has stopped and may not continue until you are able to gain that student's trust again.

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