If I had to choose one thing that I would change about higher education today, it would be the "Achievement Gap" -- the gap in academic progress that exists in the United States between middle class, largely suburban white students, and students from low-income families, largely urban students of color. By closing this gap, we could greatly increase the numbers of students who have access to higher education.
Schools throughout the United States assess academic achievement at grades four, eight, and twelve as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and minority students, especially those from low-income, urban families, fall below national averages in reading, writing, science and math at all three grade levels. As a result, the college attendance and graduation rates of minority and low-income students also continue to lag national averages. We cannot hope to improve college completion rates if we don't address this achievement gap.
Even in preschool, we start to see various factors converging to impact educational performance. For Latino children, the language barrier is especially troublesome. Latino preschoolers who enter first grade without English proficiency are at least one grade level behind the day they walk into school.
The gap only gets wider as students move on. By grade four, low-income, urban, and minority students are performing 20-40 points below their white counterparts in writing, reading, math, and science, on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. What is most frustrating is that NAEP test scores among many minority students actually get worse the longer the kids are in school. For instance, the gap between white, presumably more affluent students in Connecticut and their Latino and African American counterparts grows 4-6 points in reading, math and writing tests between the 4th and 8th grades. Latinos and African American students end up with significantly higher high school dropout rates, lower college attendance and graduation rates, and higher poverty rates than whites.
So what can we do about it? States need to enact multiple initiatives simultaneously -- policies that will help to create a comprehensive and cohesive policy framework. Common strategies include health care reform, nutrition, pre-school literacy, parental involvement in education, adult literacy, after-school programs, workforce training, and other family support systems. Additional initiatives should include improving the college readiness of high school graduates; better data collection; stronger partnerships between K-12 school districts, community colleges, and universities, and strategies at our colleges and universities to improve retention and graduation rates.
Even as we look at statewide strategies for impacting the achievement gap, the reality is that all change occurs locally. Here are some ideas that we can incorporate into our local schools:
• Early childhood education and preschool literacy must be components of local achievement gap efforts. Children of low-income families in preschool are 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to go to college. Nutrition, socialization, and intellectual stimulation are all cited as being important for all young children. For Latino children, preschool English literacy instruction is fundamental. Effective literacy education must also include literacy programming for parents and other family members.
• We need to forge stronger ties between community colleges and local universities. In Connecticut, we have developed an initiative between the 12 community colleges and all four state universities so that entering freshmen will be able to know that their full associate degree transfers without incident when they enter a state university as juniors.
• We need to build stronger commitments from local educational and community leaders. In El Paso, Texas, where 80 percent of the students are Latino, the local school district, the local community college, and the University of Texas-El Paso have come together to address the educational achievement issue. The business community and several nonprofit agencies have also joined in the effort. There is a role for everyone -- a community collaborative of businesspeople, parents, and other adults provides additional support to teachers in the school system.
Closing the achievement gap is a social challenge that will not be solved until all of us, not just educators, government officials, and the families that are impacted, meet the challenge head on. Whether we look at it as a moral imperative to give those less fortunate than us a better chance of living the American dream, or we see this in stark economic terms -- experts suggest that closing the achievement gap between America's haves and have-nots could add as much as 2-4 percent to our Gross Domestic Product -- improving academic performance among at-risk groups is good public policy for those experiencing it as well as society at large. Closing the Achievement Gap is not solely an educational reform issue, it's everyone's business.