THE BLOG
08/06/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Four Critical Steps Needed to Close U.S. Achievement Gaps

Note: The following article comes to us courtesy of John Squires, head of mathematics department at Chattanooga State Community College.

Education is not a "one size fits all" model. Not every student learns at the same pace. Some students may need aid in math, while others may need help in English, science, or other subjects; that's where developmental education comes into play. U.S. News & World Report reports that nationwide, about 20 percent of freshmen entering four-year colleges are placed into developmental English and mathematics courses. At community colleges, that number increases to about 60 percent.

There are many reasons why such a vast number of students need developmental education. According to a new report from the Education Commission of the States, one source of the problem comes from the fact that many states can't accurately pinpoint exactly how many students need remediation, and few states report information about those students back to elementary, middle and high schools.

Students in the state of Tennessee rank high in their need for developmental education, with nearly 70 percent of Tennessee's first time freshmen at community colleges requiring math remediation, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

To combat this problem, Tennessee implemented a program called SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support), reaching more than 8,500 high school and community college students throughout the state. In its first year, more than 5,500 students in Tennessee have completed the SAILS program. By bypassing the developmental courses, these students are able to save significant time and money.

Students who start in developmental education, face substantial obstacles that frequently lead to a loss of educational opportunity and achievements in the future. While there has been some conversation about these gaps, there has been little data used to show how solutions being implemented today, directly address these inequities in the long run.

To reform developmental education, Angela Boatman, assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, and myself developed four critical ideas that need to be considered:

  • Focus on closing opportunity gaps for students. Opportunity gaps arise when students have different degrees of access to college programs in high school, and these opportunities vary according to a variety of factors.
  • Focus on closing achievement gaps for students. With such a diverse and ever-changing population, education leaders must do more to confront attainment divides and make opportunities available to all Americans.
  • Provide comprehensive examples and disaggregated data to show how proposed solutions will address gaps in opportunity and achievement. This information is vital if the chasm between national goals and institutional implementation is to be bridged. Details and data about the proposed solutions will enrich the conversation and help to gain buy-in.
  • Look for examples of other successful models. Educators need to look to innovative models in our efforts to reform remedial education. For example, mastery learning has been shown to not only close race and gender gaps; it has also been shown to provide a solid foundation for college success.

Simply acknowledging achievement gaps will not solve the problem, but what will bridge these gaps, is doing things differently - looking at new models, taking innovative approaches to teaching, and making policy changes. These approaches worked for Chattanooga State Community College and other institutions in the state of Tennessee. With the SAILS program, we were able to lower achievement gaps by doing things differently and disrupted the traditional lecture model using mastery learning to give more personal and individualized instruction for at-risk students.

What have you tried in your institution to reduce achievement and opportunity gaps? Leave your comments in the section below!