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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mind the Gap: The Key to Equal Achievement

The new challenge: No underprivileged child left behind.
By Pedro Noguera
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Credit: Brian Cairns

America expects a lot from its frequently maligned public schools, but we do relatively little to make it possible for those schools to meet our expectations. Public schools are expected to educate many children whose basic needs for housing, nutrition, and health care are not met, and we blame the schools when those children do not do as well academically as more privileged children. Our politicians want schools that will enable the United States to maintain its economic and technological dominance in the world, even though we continue to pay teachers salaries that make it unlikely that our top college students will enter the profession.

We expect schools to provide students with the knowledge, understanding, and frame of mind to participate intelligently in civic life, but, increasingly, the curriculum is so focused on preparing students for state-mandated exams that there is little time for critical thinking on topics such as war and civil liberty, ideas essential to our democratic order. We call on our schools to play a role in solving a wide variety of problems that confront our nation, from global warming and substance abuse to sexually transmitted disease and race relations, yet we rarely provide the resources schools need to come close to meeting these challenges.

Given our unrealistic and unfair expectations, it is hardly surprising that schools typically disappoint and fall short of the unrealistic goals that have been set.

With adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, we gave yet another responsibility to our public schools: the requirement that they produce evidence that all children are learning. As simple and reasonable as this goal might seem, it actually represents a radical departure from generations of past practice. American schools have never been expected to educate all children, and, even more importantly, they have never been called on to eliminate racial disparities in achievement. For the first time in American history, closing the racial achievement gap has been embraced as a national priority. The profound significance of such a crusade can be fully appreciated only if one considers that for most of America's history, racial differences in achievement were presumed to be natural (that is, rooted in innate ability), unalterable, and even acceptable.

I spend a great deal of time working with school districts around the country to close this gap. Though I rarely question the sincerity of those who lead these efforts, I have come to understand the reason some schools succeed in closing, or at least reducing, the racial disparities in achievement while the overwhelming majority fail: It has less to do with skill than with will.

Schools such as Edison Elementary School, in Port Chester, New York, Henshaw Middle School, in Modesto, California, or Boston's Fenway High School provide proof that it is possible to educate poor children of color. These schools don't possess a secret curriculum or extra resources; what sets them apart and makes them unique is the dedication and commitment of the educators who work there and the purposeful approach they take in meeting the needs of the students they serve.

Of course, there is more to it than that. In the best schools, where all children achieve regardless of race or class, several strategies are typically in place, including a commitment to engage parents as partners in the educational process, a plan that details explicit roles and responsibilities for parents and educators, strong instructional leadership focused on a coherent program for curriculum and instruction that teachers support and follow. Also present is a willingness to evaluate interventions and reforms to ensure quality control, a recognition that discipline practices must be linked to educational goals and must always aim to reconnect troubled students to learning, and a commitment to finding ways to meet the nonacademic needs of poor students.

You could add to the list, but these are the main strategies identified in the research literature. And when this combination of ingredients can be brought together on a sustained basis, it is amazing what poor and disadvantaged children can accomplish.

Ultimately, it is the beliefs of educators that determine whether gaps in achievement will close. Where educators refuse to blame others for low achievement and accept responsibility for their role in student accomplishment -- or lack of it -- children benefit. Kids know when the adults who teach them care about and believe in them. They respond by displaying the qualities so essential to school success: self-motivation, self-discipline, and resilience. The fact that schools such as Edison, Henshaw, and Fenway are able to produce such students is further proof that the problem is not the kids or their parents, but the schools we send them to.

Credit: Brian Cairns
Pedro Noguera is a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education.

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mary Burch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just finished reading Paul Tough's book Whatever it Takes about Geoffrey Canada's experiment in Harlem. I was struck by the attention that Mr. Canada and the board have paid to the research on child development. As a long time educator I too have been struggling with many of the same problems, but as I read the book, I realized that the nation could do something revolutionary to make a huge difference.

I am writing you because I think I have an idea that will address the needs of little children at one end of the cognitive ladder, and adolescents, before they matriculate to high school at the other. In the chapter, "Unequal Childhoods," Tough discusses the research, "...that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age three, the children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and the children of parents on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words" (42). Tough then goes on to tell about how the effects of language deprivation also stifles intelligence, "The average IQ among the professionals' children was 117, and the welfare (parents') children had an average IQ of 79" (42).

What if every middle school or junior high had a day care center and pre-school on the same campus? What if every 6th and 7th grader had to take a course in child development that would include a four day program of one-on-one interaction with a two or three-year-old, and a fifth day in the classroom with the teacher to debrief, share ideas and frustrations, learn new techniques, study the research, and gain a greater understanding about how children learn and grow.

The main idea of this program (for little children) would be to:
1.Increase the number of daily one-to-one interactions that they receive using pre-school literacy activities
2.Increase exposure to words and concepts by having more stories read aloud per day
3.Increase the numbers of relationships with people
4.Increase the numbers of people in the community who know and care about them.

The goals for the 6th and 7th graders would be to:
1.Increase their understanding of the basic needs of pre-school children in cognitive development
2.Practice the kinds of developmental activities that increase IQ and develop literacy with the support of teachers to coach and guide them
3.Gain a greater understanding of what will be important in the development of their own children's lives when they become parents
4.Improve reading fluency
5.Confront gaps in their own cognitive development that could be addressed by working with a small child who is learning new information.

These are lofty goals, but I think the time is right to address the fact that too many young people are entering parenthood with few or inappropriate skills to nurture children. Our society keeps our kids so segregated by age that we forget how much children can learn from each other. Because our society does not put different age groups together, children often float from childhood to adolescence to adulthood without looking back, until they become parents themselves.

Parents often repeat the same kind of parenting that they experienced themselves, and today parenting includes lots of TV watching and not much interaction. This verbal and "hands on" interaction has to be built into a child's day, but even with the best day care, a child won't get as much out of a group situation as s/he could with one person giving him/her their full attention. I think that this model would benefit both groups in wonderful ways. It would increase cognitive skills for toddlers and very young children, and it would increase cognitive skills (that would hopefully transfer into parenting skills) for pre-teens.

In our own community, many parents are absent, withdrawn, or uninterested in what goes on in school--this terrible gap creates a huge problem of children lacking the brain stimulation needed to develop academic curiosity and drive. But imagine the difference that increased interaction, vocabulary, questioning, matching, counting, pouring, building, moving, arranging, sorting, planting, measuring, pretending, etc. etc. could make in a small child's cognitive development. If a series of age appropriate daily activities were assigned to each middle school child to share with his/her own "little buddy," I believe the benefits would be tremendous. Each pre-school child would have at lease three or four buddies throughout the day as the junior high aged kids moved through their schedules.

I also believe that the impact on the older children would be remarkable. Adolescents would have that elusive "manual" that we educators talk about. You know, the one that teaches: "How to be a good parent." These adolescents would be better prepared for parenting before they become sexually active themselves. Also I believe that many would be able to fill in the cognitive gaps they might have in their own lives.

john holanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

response to: Submitted by Mary Burch (not verified) on November 20, 2008 - 09:25.

I think this approach or thinking outside of the 'factory paradigm' offers a potentially meaningful and engaging pedagogy. Thank you...jh

Sam O'Brien's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We're considering ways to implement a very similar idea at our 7th-12th grade school in St Paul MN. We're in the very early stages of discussing the possibilities, but we see a definite benefit to our students in terms of interacting with children of a younger age group, serving as 'buddies' and allowing an interaction that doesn't typically happen in jr high or high school. Originally, this came to us as an idea for young children from the families of teachers at the school, but we should consider opening a functional pre-school where our students could learn/interact with students.

I really like your ideas and reasoning outlined here - thanks for the post.

Julie Niles Petersen's picture
Julie Niles Petersen
Reading Specialist

As I began reading the article, I was appreciative that the author was pointing out all of the obstacles to learning that come from inside the home. It is so common just to blame the teachers and the schools. Nearing the end, I was greatly disappointed by this statement, "Ultimately, it is the beliefs of educators that determine whether gaps in achievement will close." Don't get me wrong. I know that some schools are run poorly and have low expectations and this does need to change. However, let's say a school in a low SES area and a school in a high SES area both had the best of the best in administration, teachers and materials coupled with strong will and high expectations. Would there be great academic growth in both schools? Absolutely. Would the gap between the two schools close? I don't think so, not until we change what happens in the home.

I am a strong advocate for required parental classes in high school especially after having read the Hart & Risley study that Mary Burch talks about in the above post. A 30 million word gap between kids raised in a low SES and high SES household would be difficult to shrink unless the growth of those with the largest vocabularies (typically students in a high SES household) was illogically stunted OR we made sure that those with the lowest vocabularies (typically students in a low SES household) got off to a great start. I think Mary's approach sounds exactly like what our nation needs right now. The benefits for both groups of kids seem clear, as does the benefits for our future children. I would love to see this revolution become a reality.

Another suggestion to help overcome this would be to run public service announcements in the media about the importance of reading aloud to children in the home and bathing them in language. I should see these PSAs in the media as often as I see news segments bashing teachers and the schools. A lot of unnecessary academic damage can be done to children before they enter school. Parents need to know this and be held accountable. We also need to work on ensuring good housing, nutrition, and health care for all children as the article alludes. Healthy brains function better.

I am wishing Sam O'Brien's school in Saint Paul much success and hope some good research will come out of it and that the model will be refined so that it is easy to replicate and that it helps prevent any more unnecessary damage.

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