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Achievement Gap Results Not From an Empty Cupboard of Solutions, but Empty Cupboard of Will

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February 15, 2012 03:35 pm

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Have you ever watched a movie you’re really into, only to be completely disappointed by its ending? If you have, you can commiserate with me after you read the recent New York Times article, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.”  The piece has sparked needed conversation on the achievement gap including the segment on NPR’s program, Talk of the Nation, on Monday. The article effectively highlights the rising educational achievement gap between rich and poor students and directly challenges two of the most important tenets of American society:  equal opportunity and upward mobility. 

Certainly the problems highlighted in this article on the achievement gap that consequently leads to an income gap are very real (see my blog post from November 30). As the studies cited in the article demonstrate, the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students has grown by 40 percent between 1960 to 2007 and is double the achievement gap between blacks and whites. These trends have not been confined to K-12 education, but have permeated the whole education system.  For example, the college completion gap between rich and poor has grown by 50 percent since 1980. Given the correlation between education and income, it is no surprise to see the income gap also widen in the same period.

While I appreciated the Times raising this important issue, I felt short changed by the doom and gloom ending, which quotes Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council:

There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.

The problem is a puzzle, he said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”

Besharov’s response makes it seem as if there is nothing we can do about this problem. In reality, though the cupboard may not be overflowing, it is anything but bare.

The cupboard is not bare when thinking about what causes these gaps.  Research ranging from reports like ETS’s Parsing the Achievement Gap II to Russ Rumberger and others’ work on the dropout crisis tells us what drives the achievement gap and how that gap helps contribute to a subsequent graduation and postsecondary and career readiness gap. In each of these and many other scholarly articles, you will consistently find factors ranging from personal and family needs to community and academic needs.

The cupboard is also not bare when it comes to solutions.  At the high school level for example, we know the impact of Communities In Schools, career academies, small schools of choice, and many other strategies that are bringing strong results on a range of academic factors. We are also aware of other rigorously evaluated programs such as the Teen Outreach Program which has been shown to reduce challenges such as teen pregnancy and other risk behaviors that contribute to the achievement gap and plague students who struggle the most.  These and many other programs and educational strategies may not be perfect and their results may vary in some cases by location, but all else being equal, there is strong research to show that they work.

So, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Besherov’s assessment.  His statement would be accurate if we lacked knowledge on strategies to improve outcomes for low-income students, but that is simply and fortunately not the case.  The solutions are out there and they are not magic. In fact, the same solutions that work for low-income students also works for high-income students: a rigorous, relevant education that is coupled with meaningful relationships and services that address what would otherwise be barriers to learning.  Sometimes these solutions cost a little bit more money and sometimes they involve a different way of thinking about education. Either way, the cupboard is not bare on knowing what works. However, we have been persistently lacking when it comes to our ability to scale up what works for low-income students.  So reader beware… the problem and the consequences of the achievement gap are real, but so are the solutions.  There is no such thing as an empty cupboard when it comes to this issue, but we do come up short when it comes to carrying out the solutions to solve it.

Ace Parsi is the Policy and Advocacy Associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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