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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bridging the Achievement Gap

Yesterday at edcamp Boston, I had the chance to discuss the achievement gap with a few educators. Since then, I've been thinking about ideas that may make a difference.

First, I'm wondering what are the specific experiences that distinguish those that succeed in school and those that don't. I know that there are volumes of research out there related to this topic, but from my own experience, I notice the following.
  • Emotional Support. In busy households when there's less money, support, access to basic needs: shelter, food, clothing, health care, and education, there is greater worry, angst, conflict, and less time to support children. To support children well, there needs to be an adequate level of basic needs met.
  • Academic Support. If families are working around the clock to support the children, there may be less time to support children's academic skills with activities such as reading books, playing math games, watching informational films, visiting the library/museums, and exploring nature. 
  • Language Barriers. Parents who speak another language may be unable to access school information, events, or forms.
  • Myths and Discomfort. Adults who had difficult school experiences may be uncomfortable in the school setting. Also myths such as "some can't learn math" may continue thus creating less support for student effort and confidence.
  • Technology Savvy and Access. Today many of our most successful students have ready access to technology at home. They play games and engage in tech activities that provide tremendous academic practice and flexible cognitive readiness for learning. Students without that access or savvy will not have that same foundation.
  • Play. Play at the early ages sets students up for successful learning. Manipulating toys, exploring in nature, imagining with family members prepares students well for learning. In busy households that are working to stay afloat, there may not be the time or toys for early play. Note that many make-shift toys are as good as store bought toys for imagination play, but standards like blocks, Legos, dolls/characters, and art materials are important early toys for learning.
  • Health. If a child is unhealthy, it may be more difficult to learn. Regular routines of healthy foods and activities can situate a child well for academic success.
  • Vision and Dreams. Sharing dreams and hopes for the future also provides children with a goal that makes academic work and perseverance worth it. Reading stories and watching films of successful people, visiting beautiful places, walking around a college campus, or reading the newspaper together can help to instill dreams for the future.
  • Values. Making the time to share and discuss your family values also provides students with reason for an academic path. 
  • It Takes a Village. Making the time to seek out programs and mentors in your community to help you raise your children also helps. There are many individuals and programs that can support your child's academic achievement, and a quick search of the Internet will bring you to notable organizations such as the Y, Boys and Girls Clubs, local theater groups, afterschool programs, museum programs, summer camps and more.
  • Special Needs. Children come to school with all kinds of learning profiles. Today with Universal Design and Assistive Technology, there is not reason why we can't find successful paths for each learner. Yes, it may take more time for some to master specific concepts and skills, but what's most important is that we find ways to teach that support students' confidence, sense of self, and lifelong desire to learn and succeed.  
As a community, how can we fill in the missing pieces for children who are performing far below their peers. What can we do to promote achievement for all and get rid of the gap. I think there's lots that the broader community can do including the following ideas.
  • Child-Friendly Communities. I'd like the government to begin to promote and label "Child-Friendly Communities," and I'd like those communities to benefit from some kind of tax break or financial incentive. As part of this initiative, I'd like there to be a list of attributes that "Child-Friendly Communities" achieve such as this list:
    • One-mile violence free zone around every school. 
    • A substantial, green playground for every school including a school garden, trees, playground equipment, and athletic fields.
    • Wide, safe bike paths throughout the community.
    • Recycling centers and signage.
    • Grocery stores with healthy, affordable foods.
    • Opportunities for internships and jobs for children 14 and up.
    • High quality schools. 
    • Low cost or free options for healthy, educational, family activities.
  • Libraries as Family Learning Centers. Using the current successful library systems and following the trend to broaden those libraries to local family learning centers. Also coordinating these local centers with community schools is advantageous.
  • Health Centers at Schools. Use health care money to fund health centers at schools. Students would use their health cards to receive health care services at their school in a building close to or adjoined to the school.
  • More Time for Wellness at School. The school schedule, equipment, and structure supports greater wellness routines and access. For example students may be better served with an extra one hour of physical fitness and healthy cafeteria food than sitting in their seats and learning that extra hour. Even better is to do both: adequate time for learning and adequate time for wellness.
  • Early Play Assessments. Assessing students access to play early may help us to bridge the achievement gap. If students enter preschool or school without adequate play experience, it may be that they start school with a year or two of play and their parents receive "play" support. That year or two of play would include reading stories, playing math games, lots of imagination play, and lots of confidence building with regard to creativity, communication, critical thinking skills, and collaboration.
  • A Focus on Family. Communities could foster a focus on family using a broad definition of family as those you live with (or near) and love. Communities could assess family needs and look for ways to support and nurture families with strength. 
  • Adequate Transportation. Some cannot access good supports due to transportation issues.
  • Access to High Quality Technology. Making sure that students have the chance to use the best tech games and programs available. For example my students who play Minecraft and SCRATCH tend to be better mathematicians, and students who don't have access to those games, have a more difficult time with math. 
The achievement gap is much bigger than a single pedagogical approach or standardized score. The achievement gap has multiple reasons for its existence. One way, however, to combat this gap is to create communities in school and outside of school that better support children from birth. Organizational and family collaboration, outreach, and advocacy can help to narrow this gap. Also looking carefully at the way we spend our time and our dollars in this respect is important as we want to do what matters.

How are you working to close the achievement gap in your community and/or school. What can you do tomorrow to help in this regard? I want to think more about this in the days ahead.