The Achievement Gap

There’s a great article in yesterday’s New York Times magazine: What it takes to make a student.  It’s long — 17 pages printed — but contains solid information about the reasons for the achievement gap between students who are poor and those who are from middle-class or wealthy homes, as well as between minority and white students.  Not just reasons for the gap, but examples of educators who have overcome that gap and their methods.

Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition. Ten years earlier, they recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents. The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child’s language development and each parent’s communication style. They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

So the gap begins very early… a young child’s vocabulary is directly related to the number and complexity of words spoken to him or her.  Furthermore,  there were  differences found in the type of speech — that toddlers from low-income homes tended to hear a greater percentage of discouraging statements, where in wealthier families, the greater part of the utterances were encouraging in nature by an overwhelming margin.

Martha Farah, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has built on Brooks-Gunn’s work, using the tools of neuroscience to calculate exactly which skills poorer children lack and which parental behaviors affect the development of those skills. She has found, for instance, that the “parental nurturance” that middle-class parents, on average, are more likely to provide stimulates the brain’s medial temporal lobe, which in turn aids the development of memory skills.

There’s much more on the “whys” of the achievement gap, but answering the “what to do about it” question is far more useful:

The schools that are achieving the most impressive results with poor and minority students tend to follow three practices. First, they require many more hours of class time than a typical public school. The school day starts early, at 8 a.m. or before, and often continues until after 4 p.m. These schools offer additional tutoring after school as well as classes on Saturday mornings, and summer vacation usually lasts only about a month. The schools try to leaven those long hours with music classes, foreign languages, trips and sports, but they spend a whole lot of time going over the basics: reading and math.

Second, they treat classroom instruction and lesson planning as much as a science as an art. Explicit goals are set for each year, month and day of each class, and principals have considerable authority to redirect and even remove teachers who aren’t meeting those goals. The schools’ leaders believe in frequent testing, which, they say, lets them measure what is working and what isn’t, and they use test results to make adjustments to the curriculum as they go. Teachers are trained and retrained, frequently observed and assessed by their principals and superintendents. There is an emphasis on results but also on “team building” and cooperation and creativity, and the schools seem, to an outsider at least, like genuinely rewarding places to work, despite the long hours. They tend to attract young, enthusiastic teachers, including many alumni of Teach for America, the program that recruits graduates from top universities to work for two years in inner-city public schools.

Third, they make a conscious effort to guide the behavior, and even the values, of their students by teaching what they call character. Using slogans, motivational posters, incentives, encouragements and punishments, the schools direct students in everything from the principles of teamwork and the importance of an optimistic outlook to the nuts and bolts of how to sit in class, where to direct their eyes when a teacher is talking and even how to nod appropriately.

Particular attention is paid to the brand of charter schools known as “KIPP Academy,” and the results detailed in the article are indeed impressive.  The results for the Memphis KIPP Diamond Academy are less so, but perhaps showing a lesser gap.  I’m not sure how long the KIPP school in Memphis has been in operation, and that would have some bearing on how far they’ve come in closing the gap.

How many of the methods employed by KIPP might be applicable to a program within a public school system?  Obviously, the longer day and year would constitute a concern, yet it appears that those are key ingredients to the success of those schools.  Even if such a program could be developed within the school system, would it be voluntary, and if so, would the families of the students who need it most actually enroll them?

It seems that to get the most out of such a program, it would have to begin no later than middle school.  If we are serious about eliminating the growing income disparity in adults, it begins with addressing the achievement gap in students.

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