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What Does It Take to Close the Achievement Gap?

Thursday, 21 September 2006 12:00 AM

The "Achievement Gap" is a matter of race and class, and is one of the most pressing education-policy challenges that states currently face.

For nearly 40 years, the gap in achievement separating poor and minority students from those less disadvantaged has been the focus of discussion, research and controversy. During the late 1980s, the gap narrowed considerably between blacks and whites. Since then progress has been marginal and well below par in achievement for poor and minority students, thus becoming the most pressing problem in this country's growing educational gap.

Average black/Hispanic high school students achieve at the same level as average white students in the lowest quartile of white achievement. Black and Hispanic students are much more likely than white students to fall behind in school and drop out, and much less likely to graduate from high school, acquire a college or advanced degree, or earn a middle-class living.

Research has identified a variety of topics related to the achievement gap – students' racial and/or economic background, their parents' education level, their access to high-quality preschool instruction, peer influences, teachers' expectations, and curricular and instructional quality.

There is also a small but growing body of evidence of the effectiveness of various reforms and strategies that states, districts and schools are using to help lift the achievement of poor and minority students – from class-size reduction and increase testing to vouchers and expanded early childhood education programs.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, enacted in 2002, greatly increases pressure on states to address the achievement gap, requiring them to publish test scores separately for racial and ethnic groups and to work to eliminate disparities. It sets deadlines for states to expand the scope and frequency of student testing, revamp their accountability systems and guarantee that every teacher is qualified in his or her subject area.

The law rests on the universal premise that schools make the most basic and consistent vital difference. It leaves many hopeful that the possible combination of NCLB's tight timelines and high expectations and existing state education agendas will prove successful where past reform efforts have failed.

When the federal Education Department recently reported that children in private schools generally did no better than comparable students in public schools on national tests of math and reading, the findings were embraced by teachers unions and liberals, and dismissed by supporters of school voucher programs.

These findings raised a poignant question among educators and policy makers:

What if the impediments to learning run so deep they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms? What if schools are not the answer to solving the problems of education?

School efforts to close the gap in academic achievement between ethnic and racial minority students and white students have been largely unsuccessful to date. Differences in educational performance persist at all achievement levels, with the gap wider between students of color, immigrants and their white and Asian American peers at high achievement levels. There is now, in the United States, an urgency for a solution to solve these problems, which have now reached a crisis level.

It is now widely recognized that schools, communities, and families must be committed to the achievement of all children and must begin educating them when they are very young, and make the long-term commitment to educational improvement. Creating an overall atmosphere for children that reflects these principles is becoming a national priority.

The first few years of a child's life are particularly critical, for this is where the educational achievement gap is most impacted. This is when children develop basic learning patterns and abilities that they will use for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the playing field will never be leveled for all children.

Studies show that children who face the lack of stable, consistent, nurturing relationships with parents and caregivers; poor access to health-care and proper nutrition; and little or no exposure to age-appropriate learning activities in their first few years are more prone to developmental delays that can cause long-term deficits in school achievement.

Clear evidence now links high-quality early childhood care and education to better health as well as emotional and cognitive development – all critical factors that determine a child's readiness to succeed in kindergarten, elementary school, and beyond.

According to Richard Rothstein, Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute, "Children's social and economic backgrounds influence their learning. Children from literate homes enter school with greater vocabularies than do children unfamiliar with books. Children with less adequate pediatric care are absent more often than healthier children. Children of college-graduate parents assume that academic excellence is their birthright, while other children struggle to achieve."

In his 2004 book, "Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap," Rothstein argued that reforms aimed at education alone are doomed to come up short, unless they are tied to changes in economic and social policies to lessen the gaps children face outside the classroom.

A lack of affordable housing makes poorer children more transient and so, more prone to switch schools midyear, losing progress. Higher rates of lead poisoning, asthma and inadequate pediatric care also fuel low achievement, along with something as basic as the lack of eyeglasses.

Even the way middle-and lower-class parents read to their children is different, he writes, making learning more fun and creative for wealthier children. "I would never say public schools can't do better," he says. I'd say they can't do much better" unless lawmakers address the social ills caused by poverty.

Parents and communities as well as schools play a critical role in the care and education of young children. Schools are considered successful only if they close the achievement gap. Therefore, these efforts are necessary to encourage integration of existing programs, services, and funding streams into a flexible and comprehensive system of supports for children and families.

www.armstrongwilliams.com

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The "Achievement Gap" is a matter of race and class, and is one of the most pressing education-policy challenges that states currently face. For nearly 40 years, the gap in achievement separating poor and minority students from those less disadvantaged has been the...
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Thursday, 21 September 2006 12:00 AM
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