Creating true equity and delivering it to every student: that's the objective of educational reform across the country. But such an enormous and complex task must be accomplished one classroom at a time, and one student a time.
School and district leaders are currently faced with the difficult task of reforming practices that have contributed to “the learning gap,” in which underserved students, students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, students in foster care, transient students, and many other disadvantaged groups, are less likely to succeed in reading, among other skills crucial to success later in life.
To close the gap, the focus on equality (treating every student the same) must be replaced with work to promote equity (ensuring every student has the resources and attention they need).
What Is the Achievement Gap?
This gap takes many forms, but basically it’s the variation in performance between what students are expected to have learned and what they actually have learned and mastered to date. When students are grouped together by race, gender, or socioeconomic status, and compared in terms of academic achievement, persistent gaps and disparities can be observed and measured.
How Can We Close the Gap?
Because the achievement gap is reflected differently in each setting and each relationship, the only real way to close the gap is by attending directly to the individual needs of each and every student. To work toward fixing the widespread inequities and disparities that are manifested across our schools and classrooms, each student needs the attention and encouragement required to help them perform at the level they're uniquely capable of reaching.
The tips we describe below are starting points. A single teacher can’t close the achievement gap alone. But any teacher can accomplish growth and improvement within the bounds of each relationship they build with a student. Each teacher, each school, each leader, each district can begin the work of counteracting and transforming the performance disparity, each day.
Try These Tips to Help Close the Gap
Here are a few tried-and-true methods for effectively closing the achievement gap:
- Spend Time: The more a student is struggling, the more time they may need with their instructor. Instruction offered to struggling students should be explicit, scaffolded, and targeted to each student’s needs, which can require more time, increased intensity, more repetition, greater detail, and more frequency of instruction. Allow students to also take time to reflect upon what they’ve learned or upon the process of learning it.
- Track Progress: What are students doing well? Where do teachers need to focus attention? Formative assessments help teachers monitor and analyze student progress, so they can observe student performance and address gaps appropriately. See data as a gift: set benchmarks, track progress, set reasonable yet challenging goals, stay transparent with students about their performance, and utilize technology to help them improve.
- Connect Home and School: One of the most crucial elements in closing the achievement gap is active, in-depth cooperation between schools, teachers, caregivers, and communities. Innumerable studies have demonstrated that strong involvement from caregivers in their children’s education results in a direct positive impact on student achievement. Include caregivers in the conversation, helping them become involved as reliable, invested partners in their children’s success.
- Keep Instruction Evidence-Based: Help everyone consistently progress, support struggling students, and encourage realistic success for students at every level by implementing evidence-based learning programs. These programs are often supplemental and should include ongoing support from performance data, enabling teachers to observe student responses and use assessments to inform instruction.
- Maintain Rigor: Most students can achieve at high levels when they’re taught at high levels. A strong curriculum that features balanced instruction, while emphasizing the importance of building comprehension skills, empowers all students to succeed within their own capacity. Avoid the trap of making assumptions; help counteract implicit bias by keeping an open mind, learning more about who students really are and about their strengths and interests, and using that information to tailor instruction.
- Engage Everybody: When teachers employ differentiated instruction, students at every level demonstrate increased engagement and motivation. Teachers can utilize anything from technology to topic choice as tools for enhancing engagement, along with effectively matching tasks to students’ skills. One of the best ways to engage students is by focusing on topics they love. Finding out what interests each student is a powerful way to get started on this path. Which materials do they most enjoy? What are their favorite subjects? Take the first step by asking questions like these. When a student’s interest is piqued, learning happens more effectively. We talk more about personalized learning here!
- Develop Teaching Skills: Promote professional growth for teachers, along with measurable learning gains for students, by building a carefully designed, well-communicated process for teacher development. Schools and districts can support teachers by encouraging them to participate and by rewarding achievements.
By actively building deeper relationships with students, teachers can effectively start closing the achievement gap in their own classrooms.