Friday, October 5, 2007

Remedying the Achievement Gap

The recently released results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal a persistent achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and their White counterparts. The data also indicate that the achievement gap has held fairly steady since the results of the first NAEP were released 15 years ago.

Why has the achievement gap proven to be such an intractable problem? Presumably, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was drafted specifically to ameliorate the chronic underachievement of poor Black and Hispanic children, especially in reading.

My sense is that NCLB has promoted teaching practices that largely sustain the achievement gap. NCLB and related programs like Reading First promote circumscribed, skills-focused reading curricula that deny students in under-performing schools the rich reading experiences routinely provided to students in more affluent, higher-performing schools. It’s no surprise that students in poor urban and rural schools are plagued by a “fourth-grade reading slump.” An obsession with discrete skill instruction to the near exclusion of reading connected text virtually insures that many underachieving students will struggle when the expectation changes from learning to read to reading to learn.

I don’t understand why many policy makers think that students in underachieving schools – places overpopulated by poor Black and Hispanic children – require qualitatively different reading curricula from students in high performing schools. If students in high performing schools have lots of opportunities to read and discuss engaging texts – and they do – then this is what students in low performing schools need, too. If high achieving students have time for sustained engagement with various kinds of texts through practices like sustained silent reading – and they do – then this at least as important for low achieving students.

The antidote to the achievement gap then is high expectation curricula informed by the practices and opportunities common in high achieving schools. The evidence that the rich and varied curricula found in high achieving schools “work” is obvious: the students in these schools do very well academically. The evidence that low expectation curricula common in underachieving schools do not is equally obvious.


deepbrook said...

I'm on the school board in an affluent, high-performing district in New England. A full quarter of our third graders aren't reading at the proficient level or above. Their problem isn't that they aren't immersed in "rich reading experiences," but rather that they're ONLY getting such experiences and not the underlying skill instruction that they also need.

To simplify just a bit, successful readers (1) possess decoding skills, (2) have strong vocabularies, and (3) know how to apply comprehension strategies. "Rich reading experiences" address (3). Children from affluent backgrounds have the vocabulary that makes up (2). But for too many of these children, the lack of an explicit understanding of (1) makes them poor readers.

The problem is compounded for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds--research clearly shows that their vocabularies are on the order of 1/4 that of their affluent peers.

It's demonstrably false that children at the lower end of the economic spectrum need the same approach that affluent children are getting, for two reasons: affluent children aren't getting the right blend of reading instruction themselves, and less affluent children don't have the same literacy starting point.


Debbie said...

deepbrook- Have you actually BEEN in the classrooms during instruction to see that the skills are not being taught or did someone give you a report that stated this was the problem? As a former district administrator I saw teachers working very hard to teach the skills within rich reading experiences but many who observed (who later wrote the reports) were not knowledgeable enough in early literacy acquisition and teaching the processes of reading and writing to recognize the skills being taught while embedded in continuous text. Those observers could only recognize a skill lesson if it was taken out of context in an isolated format such as a phonics worksheet. I would wager that the students in your district are not getting "ONLY rich reading experiences" without skill instruction. Give the teachers some credit for being professionals.

My opinion is that the students were probably instructed in isolated skills in the early years (PK-grade 1)and never connected those skills to the real task of reading and writing. In my experiences many of the economically disadvantaged students do not have the previous experiences to instinctively tie the skills and real task together therefore becoming confused by it all and begin a cycle of failure until they give up. With early intervention these confusions can be cleared up; before they learn to fail and before they learn to be learning disabled.

I recommend that every school board member spend at least one whole day in a school to really see what is going on. Every elected official should be required to spend at least one test day in a school, if not the whole week before, to see what the NCLB legislation is doing to the children. Teachers would probably get the pay raises they have so richly deserved for years!