By Steve Peha
Iâ€™ve lived in Carrboro for six years now and each year thereâ€™s been discussion of the achievement gap issue in our local schools. But this year, the gap has reached an unprecedented and, frankly, shocking level.
Currently, we have almost a 60-point difference in the achievement levels of white and black students. This is a larger gap than any I have ever seen in 15 years of working with school districts around the country. Worse than that, however, is the trend. While white students are holding steady at scores of between 90 and 95, black students are on a precipitous downward slide. And while itâ€™s unlikely that either black or Hispanic student groups will ever hit rock bottom, a graph of test data from the April 23rd edition of The Daily Tar Heel makes it appear that these groups are possibly headed for zero over the next few years in this grade 3-8 reading and math testing.
In my opinion, we no longer have an achievement gap in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, we have an achievement chasm. This means that business as usual can no longer be tolerated. Specific efforts to improve the performance of black and Hispanic students must be put into place immediately. At the same time, the high performance of other students, of which we should be exceedingly proud, should not be compromised in any way.
So how do we pull off this educational sleight of hand? Surprisingly, it may not be that hard, as long as we start in the right place.
Literacy is the foundation of school success. And early literacy is the foundation of that foundation. By focusing our efforts on closing the gap in reading and writing at grades K-3, we can give low-performing kids a fair shot at being successful while at the same time supporting high-achieving kids. To accomplish this, there are significant changes we need to make in our classrooms. In particular, our teaching must become more efficient, more differentiated and more authentic.
Kids donâ€™t enter school at the same level; gaps exist from the first day of kindergarten. In general, kids who come from less advantaged families, and those who donâ€™t speak English very well, may be anywhere from six months to two years behind. This is time that must be made up in short order. For example, if it takes us six to eight months for kindergarteners to learn their letters and sounds, and to write their first sentences, we need to switch to methods that can accomplish this in six to eight weeks. Moving faster, with better strategies, and with more intensity toward key developmental goals, is absolutely essential.
To make sure that all kids, regardless of ability, receive a high-quality education that meets their needs, we need to do a better job of differentiating instruction. This usually comes down to two things: more and better individual conferencing so teachers can increase their one-on-one time with students, and improved classroom management to facilitate this. The more differentiated we can be, the better we can do at meeting the needs of individual students, regardless of differences in ability.
Finally, we need to make sure the reading and writing tasks we ask children to engage in are practical, useful, appropriate and meaningful. In other words, we must strive to make literacy instruction more authentic. Itâ€™s all well and good to engage kids in elaborate art projects around the books they read, but it doesnâ€™t do a lot to improve their reading abilities.
And while acrostic poems are cute, they donâ€™t help kids improve the grammar and sentence structure of their writing. The same might be said of worksheets, workbooks and test-prep activities. Higher volumes of authentic reading and writing are vital for low-performing students and, best of all, theyâ€™re good for high-performing kids too.
Closing the literacy gap by the end of third grade is essential for several reasons. First of all, the human brain is more receptive to language learning between the ages of 5 and 8 than it is thereafter. Second, at fourth grade and above teachers tend to have less literacy training than their K-3 peers. Finally, as kids head toward and into middle school the curriculum changes dramatically. At sixth grade, kids lose half their reading and writing time while the volume and difficulty of content-area work they are expected to do increases dramatically. In short, by sixth grade thereâ€™s little time to learn to read and write anymore. (We may need to change this too, but thatâ€™s another battle for another day.) Language Arts becomes more about literature and less about reading and writing, and a huge load of hard work descends from the social studies, math and science departments.
Closing the achievement chasm wonâ€™t be easy, especially when it has reached 50-60 points, as it has this year in our district. But addressing it is imperative, as we now risk the creation of a permanent educational underclass. A few more years of scores like these and no one will be questioning them. We will have reached a stage of educational determinism where the color of a studentâ€™s skin or the size of a familyâ€™s bank account accounts for the level of achievement kids attain.