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Closing the Achievement Gap: "All Children Can Learn"

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"How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far." -- Ronald Edmonds, Harvard University

Closing the Achievement Gap

The respondents to a recent Edutopia Poll on closing the achievement gap appropriately recognized there is no single silver bullet that will result in eliminating the pernicious gaps in achievement that rob students of access to full participation in American society. Many of the educators, parents, and community members endorsed the survey probes and generated a list of convincing suggestions for closing gaps.

A review of research and the literature documenting best practices align well with the views of many poll respondents. The large body of evidence indicates to me that we can close gaps whenever and wherever we choose. The larger question, raised by survey respondent Tere, mirrors the question the late Harvard University education professor Ronald Edmonds raised nearly thirty years ago. Tere asks, "Now the question is, are we prepared and willing to do this?"

Nearly all educators are familiar with Edmonds's battle cry, "All children can learn." We also know that certain things must be in place for this to happen, including, but not limited to, varying instructional approaches to match the learning styles of students, differentiating instruction, providing access to high-quality preschool programs, consistently exposing students to high-quality instruction, generating support from families and communities, and consistently scaling up implementation of best-practice instructional strategies and approaches in all classrooms and in all content areas.

Schools and school districts that effectively implement these and other high-leverage strategies with fidelity are getting results. The challenge of closing the achievement gap in America has less to do with a knowledge gap and is more connected to a will gap evident across all sectors of American society. It seems that our historical failure to educate generations of children continues to be an acceptable outcome -- why else would we tolerate such a waste in human potential?

This is shameful, and it is time to reject the myths that provide excuses for action. It's time to stop blaming the victims, relying on nonschool factors to excuse our performance in schools, and accepting the poppycock that closing the achievement gap is a problem without a solution.

The will gap is a chief barrier to generating the focus, energy, and resources needed to overcome the dominant belief system that questions the ability of poor children, children of color, and children with limited English-speaking proficiency to master rigorous academic content and the ability of responsible adults to make a difference in the conditions inside and beyond the schoolhouse required to support gap-closing strategies and interventions. Edmonds's question "How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children?" is as pertinent now as when he raised it back in 1979.

The evidence continues to mount, clearly indicating that schools, school districts, and communities who have the will and passion to make a difference in the outcomes of all students have been successful in closing gaps.

  • Edmonds's pioneering work resulted in the identification of schools serving the most isolated, marginalized, and impoverished children and families that have been successful in their efforts to increase student achievement. (Download a PDF of this very important paper -- "Revolutionary and Evolutionary: The Effective Schools Movement," by Lawrence W. Lezotte.)
  • James Comer's breakthrough work with many high-poverty schools using the School Development Program to anchor their improvement efforts has been carefully documented and points the way to the resolution of problems not successfully addressed in many schools that fail to improve outcomes for their students.
  • Dr. Jeff Howard, founder of the Efficacy Institute, has several decades of research and frontline experience supporting the notion that "smart is not something you are; smart is something you can become." Howard argues that efficacy, coupled with effective effort, high expectations, high-quality curriculum, and good instruction, are the ingredients to promote high achievement.
  • Robert Moses's Algebra Project, which has challenged more than 10,000 learners in nearly thirty school districts, has made success in algebra possible for a large number of students who might have been destined to a minimum basic-skills experience in mathematics. The list goes on and on (Robert Marzano, Doug Reeves, Linda Darling-Hammond, Lauren Resnick, Belinda Williams, Joseph Johnson, Ron Ferguson, and many more), making it clear that we know what needs to be done.

Visit the Web site of the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, to learn about schools and school districts that have increased the performance of students many others claim to be hard to teach. A lot of information is available to us today that was not available to educators of prior generations. The research basis for teaching and learning has improved dramatically over the years, and descriptions of best practices are more readily accessible due to advances in technology. We have many examples of strategies and interventions that have proven effective in educating children and youth that many in our schools and communities don't believe can be educated at higher levels.

I don't argue that we should not continue the research agenda -- that would be foolish. As much as we have learned about learning, pedagogy, brain function, motivation theory, and biochemistry, there is more to be learned that will help us to be even better at diagnosis and prescription to meet learner needs. Ongoing research is necessary, but we have enough knowledge to make a difference for the children who are showing up in our schools over the next several weeks. The empirical evidence is clear, compelling, consistent, and convincing. It is no longer a problem that we don't know what to do; the problem is that we lack the will to do that which is known to have a positive impact on closing gaps.

Poor children, children of color, children with limited English-speaking proficiency, and all other children adversely impacted by disadvantage are as capable as any other children in our society. They can succeed in school and master rigorous content. There can be no tolerance of alibis, excuses, or exceptions! Yes, many influences need to be addressed to wipe out the impact of being economically disadvantaged in a privileged, affluent society. This is important work and would make the job of educators somewhat less complicated. However, as educators, we cannot permit the failures of society to hinder our response to the pressing needs of children and youth.

Educators across the country know and understand that our work grows out of a moral imperative to create a fair and just society. Mission-oriented educators, working with parents, communities, and other strategic partners, have contributed to the development of a body of knowledge of what schools can do to be more effective in closing achievement gaps.

I thank Spiral Notebook for igniting an important community conversation focused on the issue of closing the achievement gap. The respondents inspired my participation in an ongoing conversation through postings on the blog. I look forward to interacting with you over the next several months on a variety of discussion on accelerating the achievement of all students.

Let's see what we can do to generate the will needed to get the job done for our children and youth. The input of educators, students, parents, community members, and others is encouraged to ensure the diversity needed to arrive at a shared understanding of what must be done to stop the waste of potential that is so evident when we allow massive gaps in achievement to persist.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a newer teacher, I am inspired at the thought that all of my students can learn. The reality has hit me the last few years. Yes, they all can learn, but it won't happen at the same pace or in the same ways. I find myself struggling with this topic on a daily basis. I teach in a school where many of our students have a homelife that is filled with poverty and lack of family support. I continually hear teachers, who have taught at this school for many years, say that the students home lives are awful and therefore they will not ever be successful in school. I want to ask them why not. Many of these teachers are the same ones who are fighting our School Improvement Plan. This plan will create a set of interventions to be used when students are not meeting standard. This would mean that these teachers who currently make excuses would have to try new things to help their students learn. I think this is great. I just hope that they are going to get on board and support the new program. Yes, it is great to know home history about our students, but only if we use it to help guide our instruction as we continue to hold high expectations for them.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Last year, I was chose to challenge myself by attempting to close the achievement gap of a group of 4th graders who were up to two years behind grade level on our initial assessment. I used a variety of materials which acclaimed to be the answer to closing the gap. I found the materials to be helpful, but the most beneficial aspect to my approach was getting the students to believe they were good readers. As their confidence grew so did their achievement. All of the students made significant growth, and this year as fifth graders many maintained their growth. All of this takes hardwork by everyone, cooperation of parents and a never give up attitude. The more I learn through others research reinforces my belief that all people can learn.

Meredith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading this blog inspired me. I want to go out and research more ways to help those children who struggle and who are labeled as students who cannot or will not learn.
I too am a new teacher and I feel that sometimes my more experienced colleagues often give up on groups of students becuase they label them "un teachable". I have always felt this is not a positive way to look at a student. This blog confirmed my feelings. All children can learn. It is simply our willingness to do so.
At my school there are so many pull out programs to help those students who struggle to achieve. They are sent to ELL, Resource, Title One, Reading Recovery, and many are pulled out of class by college students for some one on one tutoring. We put so much effort into these extra programs at school, but it seems there is so little hope for the students we are trying to help.
I believe there needs to be an attitude adjustment in the schools across the nation. We need to find effective ways in working towards closing the achievement gap!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, students need to believe that they are good readers! I'm a Title I reading teacher, and I am always interested in learning about programs and methods that teachers find helpful. I really prefer to work with one student at a time; the work can be so much more focused on exactly where that particular child is at the moment. Even in a group, it is important to ensure success for each student, so that the student feels positive about her/himself.I believe that we have enough time at school to help each child learn to read, with or without parent help. We must not use the excuse of "He/she doesn't get any help at home." Those students need our help more, not less.

Tara 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am 3rd grade teacher at a Title I school. I am very interested in learning about programs and strategies that teachers use to effectively teach reading. I really prefer to work with one student at a time, too. I have trouble agreeing with the notion that we have enough time at school to help each child learn to read, with or without parent help by the time they get into the upper elementary grades. You are abosolutey correct in saying that we need to help those students who lack parental support more.

Elkhart, IN
Walden University

Terri Bryant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am interested in specific strategies that high performing schools are implementing to raise the achievement of students determined to have a learning disability.

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