01/24/2011 11:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We Already Know How to Close the Achievement Gap

Stenciled on the edge of London's subway platform, warning riders to be careful stepping on and off the train, are the words: "MIND THE GAP."

That same phrase should be painted on the walls of every school and education office in America and along with it the long list of gaps we ought to mind (be ever aware of) and mind (they should really bother us).

The achievement gaps of ethnicity, class, and gender -- of course.

And the gap between how much we spend on education and how much of that money goes to the actual teaching of children along with gaps in how much is spent on the public education of some children and how much is spent on others and gaps between the quality of instruction in some schools and in others. Gaps in the quality of the facilities.

But also the gaps in our agreement and understanding--teachers with administrators with parents with politicians with experts in the field of education--about what our students ought to learn and how best they can learn it. And, unfortunately the gap between the sincere efforts of those committed to the best interests of children and those whose efforts are motivated entirely by profit or ambition.

There are a great many gaps between many so-called education professionals and experts and stakeholders and the students themselves--gaps in our collective understanding of who they are and how they see themselves and their world and who they want to be in it.

Also gaps between what teachers know--what we would like to have our students learn--and what we are actually able to convey to anyone amidst overcrowded classes, student disinterest, frequent disruptions from students in the class and from administrators and others outside the class, and the general apathetic, anti-intellectual culture that has infected many of our schools.

Closing any of these gaps is cause for celebration. Like when Jade, a student in my class from 2006 to 2008, arrived at UCLA her first semester expecting to struggle and to be awed by the knowledge and skill of all those "White and Asian suburban students" she would be with for the first time in her life but discovered that she was as prepared or better prepared than most. She's an honors student now graduating this spring and already applying to graduate school.

Of course, Jade had a tremendous amount to do with her own success -- just as students who fail to breech the gap should (and by the way often do) own at least some of their failure. Jade had every reason to fail -- poverty and a shattered home life -- but somehow had used her hardship as motivation, though I do recall my colleagues and I having to talk her out of quitting a few times.

Gap closures like Jade's are happening all the time all over the country. Just not nearly enough of them.

There is a way to replicate them on a grand scale -- and I think we already know what it is.

I was talking recently with a junior college assistant basketball coach who was recalling the days when JCs had opportunities to recruit some of the nation's best football and basketball players. "Used to be you could pick up two or three elite guys," he said. "Division one caliber players who hadn't met the NCAA requirements." He meant the GPA, SAT, and other academic minimums.

Most of these athletes, Coach told me, would showcase their talents in junior college ball for one or two years while they straightened out their academic situations, then many would transfer to a four-year, division one university.

I asked him why that was no longer true and he said those blue chip athletes aren't falling through the cracks in high school anymore. Now they pretty much all meet those requirements because there are so many people with a vested interest in their success -- family, friends, coaches -- and, in some cases, shoe companies and agents -- provide an effective support system.

Let's replicate that -- without, of course, all the illegal stuff -- for every student, especially those who are typically on the wrong end of all those gaps.

Sports, music, public speaking, engineering, art, leadership -- all students can excel in something and stay interested and motivated in school if we have enough diversity in our curriculum (and shame on those who under the guise of "accountability" have dulled the school experience for millions of our children and created a huge gap between what education could be and what it is). And every child can succeed if enough people care enough to take an interest and provide assistance. A lot of people have already figured this out for their own children and spend the time and money, if they have it, to ensure success. Let's make it a broader initiative. Expensive -- perhaps, but so is every other attempt to close all these gaps. And why should someone have to be a great athlete for us to care enough to make sure he or she makes it?