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Thoughts on Closing the Achievement Gap

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Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released student performance data in its National Assessment for Educational Progress report. The data is compiled every two years and it assesses fourth and eighth graders and their reading and math achievements. This particular report also outlines differences between students based on racial and socioeconomic demographics. The data points to the places in the U.S. that still struggle with inequality in student opportunity and performance, otherwise known as the achievement gap.

The worst state on the list is Connecticut. The state actually boasts higher achievement numbers than the national average when it comes to math and reading proficiency; the disparities between high-performing and low-performing students, however, are steep and point to an overall problem in the U.S. It is no coincidence that Connecticut has the largest extreme in socioeconomic conditions among its citizens, a factor that undoubtedly leads to its achievement gap standing. Still, despite claiming equality in education for all students, there is a marked difference between the achievements of white, middle-to-high class students and their peers of color and lower socioeconomic status.

So what can we do to close the achievement gap in the U.S.?

Recognize that it is a problem. When people approach the achievement gap with a "to each his own" attitude, they neglect the fact that there is a steep economic and societal cost when students perform poorly in K-12 classrooms. The fact is that students who perform poorly in school are more likely to live in poverty, or end up in prison. Both scenarios mean less social progress and a higher cost to the rest of the country. Everyone should care on principle - but if that isn't enough, there are financial reasons too.

Seek out focused efforts. In areas, like Connecticut, where the achievement gap is especially glaring, more focus needs to be placed on solutions. It is not enough to leave change up to individual families and parents. That answers need to come inside the classroom, either during normal school hours or in special programs afterwards. The NAEP report found much success in states that were previously highlighted for having large achievement gap who have started to turn it around, like Tennessee. Education reform in the state in the form of higher standards, more stringent teacher evaluations, and better instructional support programs for teachers are among the ways Tennessee has seen significant closure in the achievement gap, and stronger performance from students overall, since 2011. Washington D.C. was another area that had improvement on achievement scores and success at closing its achievement gap, due mainly to targeted programs.

Be relentless. This point ties together the thoughts of the first two. For educators to really make an impact, they have to see the bigger-picture negative implications of the achievement gap. The second step is to go beyond empty rhetoric and put plans in place that will facilitate change - and then to stick with them. The general nature of children is that of inquisitiveness and an innate desire to learn. Over time, environmental influences may guide children to a place to complacency and indifference and that can certainly make it difficult for a teacher to do his or her job. Instead of ignoring these students and rewarding the ones that show the most interest or promise, educators should try even harder to reach at-risk or poor-performing kids. That will likely mean a different approach and maybe even special programs but it is worth the effort in order to get closer to equalizing student performance.

The achievement gap will likely always exist in some capacity, much in the way that the U.S. high school dropout rate will likely never make it down to zero. This doesn't mean it is a lost cause, of course. Every student who succeeds, from every demographic, is another victory in K-12 education and it benefits society as a whole. Better recognition by every educator, parent and citizen of the true problem that exists is a start; actionable programs are the next step.

How do you think the nation can improve, as a whole, when it comes to the achievement gap?