How to Close Achievement Gaps

by Jon Saphier - July 2014

Achievement gaps between white students and African-American, Latino, and poor white students are endemic in American society. This is even true where there is a strong middle class population of color. The reasons most often given for these achievement gaps are poverty, broken families, crime-ridden neighborhoods, a decline in moral values, and racism. Other reasons cited are unequal funding and unequal access to educational resources for children of poverty and disadvantaged children. It is hard to argue that a child who shows up at school hungry and afraid  is ready to learn. Many of us in teaching receive children in this condition everyday. So I would be foolish to discount these factors in creating and sustaining the Achievement Gap in this country.

Yet, hundreds of schools in this country serving disadvantaged children manage to get break-the-mold results; results that endure after the children graduate from that school. So, it would be equally foolish to say that the factors listed above condemn disadvantaged children to lower educational attainment and lives of limited success and achievement. What is clear is that the schools that do so well for disadvantaged children have terrific teachers; they also are committed to getting the students to believe that they are academically capable; and the teachers themselves act from this belief in a consistent way. They are, in other words, masters of motivation.

Motivating and supporting disadvantaged students is a complex teaching skill. I emphasize it as a skill, a constellation of behaviors, classroom practices, and school structures. We know what they are and we know how to do them. I emphasize skill here because spirit, will, and passion are not enough by themselves. School staffs that teach disadvantaged children and get out of proportion academic gains are passionate all right: they really want the children to succeed. They also believe that if they muster the teaching skills required they can get “out-of-the-box” achievement.

Until, as a society, we take on the promise of democracy, namely a fair chance at a good life for every child through education, there are serious impediments to how far we can move disadvantaged children. But a national policy to reach all children through education would require a focus we currently don’t have: providing high expertise teaching far beyond what our teachers are currently prepared or accountable for doing.

In the meantime, any school and better, any school district that wishes to get “out-of-the-box” results for disadvantaged students can focus on the one thing most missing from children’s experience: a classroom led by a high expertise teacher who is a master of motivation. Affluent students from high expectation families will do well even without expert teaching, but disadvantaged children cannot do without it.

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