Bridging the Achievement Gap

I am not sure how many folks have read Macolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, but it has a very interesting take on the gap in success between poor kids (often, but not alway minority) and middle class ones.

Because I live in Chapel Hill and work in Hillsborough, I have the opportunity to interact with school officials and parents from both county systems - Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange. One thing that is clear is that there are excellent students, teachers and administrators in each system. As a parent with a Middle Schooler, I am curious about the way we make decisions regarding teaching our kids.  As one of the original members of the Parent-Advisory CMTE for the Dual Language Program, I remember discussions about how to implement the program and reach out to an ethnic and economically-diverse population.  What struck me was the pre-conceived notions regarding poor people and minorities. 

Now these folks were not racist or culturally uninformed. In fact, they were well-informed, well-meaning and well-versed in the issues regarding race, poverty and instruction. The issue has always been defined as the schools failing to help with instruction; poor parents don't have the time to be involved, may not have cars, etc. Again, no one came out and said that poor children were less intelligent or anything untoward. However, there was an implication that if the schools did more, the gap could be closed. The Dual Language program was supposed to be a part of that. 

While the Dual Language program has done some very good things and the first group is in now in Middle School. However, the achievement gap remains largely unchanged. I don't think this means the program, or the school system has failed. But what does it mean?

Gladwell's book, Outliers, pokes a lot of wholes in our myths of success. In Chapter 9, he talks about the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) in New York. The program has been an unqualified success, but not because of hand-picked students, teaching to the test or anything like that. It seems to have succeeded by simply keeping kids in school longer than normal schools. The premise is that schools are doing a good job, they aren't given enough time to do it.

I decided to apply that to my own situation: my mother was decidely middle class and my father grew up in the type of poverty that most people in Government only see on TV. My mother made sure that I read regularly and had access to books and anything else I needed, she introduced me to heads of companies and taught me how to act and dress. She was in awe of no one. That gave me a significant advantage when it came time to go to College, work and in school. My father simply let her handle it. I used to think that was just his personality, but I now believe it had to do with his experience as a throw-away to the school system.

In the chapter regarding achievement  in Outliers, Gladwell points to a study of Baltimore City Schools and how the well-off students outperformed poorer students year over year. The data indicate that the real advantages of wealth are the ability to continue education (through camps, travel, etc.) over the summer. Poor children actually outperformed wealthy children during the school year in tests showing comprehension and academic growth. However, they lacked the resources for extra instruction over summer.

While this is a little too long for a blog post, I encourage folks here to read Outliers. It was eye-opening to me that perhaps our problem is that a long time ago, educational reformers applied an agricultural schedule to human learning. It wasn't their fault, it was all they knew. However, we now have a system that fails to provide the education necessary due to its 180 day limitation. 

To put this in perspective, think about how effective we would be in our jobs if we only went to them for 6 hours a day 180 days a year. How is it that the same country who now has children playing sports year around cannot see the importance of year round education?

What's amazing is not that kids are failing. It's amazing how many children succeed in spite of the limited access to learning opportunities. That is a testament to Summer School, community programs and just how good our teachers our at creating excitement about learning. 

My proposal is that we examine going to 270 days of school; let the educators have the time to do their work; and create an educational system that is allowed to work for everyone.


Nice to see folks in Chapel Hill getting around to it.

One of Gladwell's points is that the more well-to-do students did increase their knowledge during the time off from school. One could even extrapolate that they would increase their knowledge with less school. Certainly year-round schools mean less time to explore nature, interact with adults in the community, follow curiousity, etc. So there are drawbacks to it.What Gladwell is saying is that, given all the other elements of our society and how success is measured, year-round schools provide the best opportunity for lower class kids to preform well according to the way we measure success. This is, of course, what we are generally after. The Chamber of Commerce is not interested in paying a living wage and helping raise lower class people out of poverty. The macro-economy desires a significant pool of unemployed in order to keep wages down. In the end, Gladwell's research points us toward a system of differing educational approaches that will greatly diminish the "achievement gap", but many kids will look up from their desks in July and wish they were at the pool like their better-off buddies from across town.

You're completely wrong about the effect of Year Round schools on poor kids. Glenwood takes it's students on a Nature Exercise Sound to Sea as do many of the schools around here. Rich kids get to explore nature. Poor kids get to explore the inside of their houses and at best the local playground.Better resourced schools can provide much more opportunity to interact with the outdoors than most parents. Kids who live in PUDs and housing projects have better access through education to outdoor opportunities than at home. As a latchkey kid growing up across from a park, I can honestly say that having the summer's off did nothing for me. The world changed in the 1980s, just no one noticed.Mark, while I wish what you were saying was true, sadly that world is gone. With both parents working kids aren't even allowed to leave the house. Schools offer the hope, not the constriction.  

The sociological and economic conditions for a lot of kids do mean that they are more likely to experience the natural world in an institutional setting. (Although the natural world inside their head may benefit from free time outside the structure of public schooling.)Generally speaking, we can approach this two ways. We can accept this reality as unchangeable and work to shape the institution to better serve these needs. Or we can confront the reality that this is a symptom of a society in decline that does not care about equality and opportunity. The Big Business powers that be obviously favor the first approach, in the same way that they favor dispensing increasing numbers of happy pills to children. They make more money and the whole system is easier to mange for them.

"To put this in perspective, think about how effective we would be in our
jobs if we only went to them for 6 hours a day 180 days a year." I think we would be much more effective and much more rested, and we would have more time to spend teaching out kids importnat things like the foolishness of a prison based school system.  I have no idea what you all are talking about. What are these kids performing at? Who is setting up the performance that they must perrorm in?This is all very sad to me. P.S. I have a degree in Education.

While Outliers makes a case for year round schooling, you could just as easily argue that it makes a case for putting resources into summer camps or neighborhood recreation programs where children engage actively with each other and the world around them - under the guidance of adults. Affluent parents tend to do this for their kids or they pay others to do it. Children from poorer families lack similar opportunities for physical and intellectual engagement and problem solving. There is a saying that the brain learns through the hands. People are right: kids don't need more sitting in desks, but they also don't need to be cut loose completely and they certainly don't need to be spending their time indoors watching massive amounts of TV, educational or not. Summer camps in Chapel Hill are quite good, but they cost, are not necessarily located on bus routes and may not suit the hours for working families. Parks & Rec programs within walking distance of children's homes are great, especially if they have access to a bus (library trips, reading clubs, and other field trips to state parks and historic sites) and if the kids can walk there safely (sidewalks, safe neighborhood, etc). They are even better when kids' parents are onboard with this. BTW, this is not to say that the Chapel Hill Parks and Rec summer programs are not good, I think they are. It's a tough nut to crack. 

I think you're right about this. I wouldn't mind a Public/Private Chamber Partnership on the Summer Camp Issue. In the interest of disclosure, I will be working for a Summer Camp sponsored by a local Private School this year and it does offer scholarships as much as it can afford to do.I am also doing some Volunteer work with Chapel Hill Parks and Rec, and I can honestly say that the Director is forward thinking and his staff is doing the best it can with limited resources.When I was on the Dual Language Parental Advisory CMTE, I proposed that After School have at least one Spanish Speaking employee to help the young kids who spoke Spanish. This didn't get very far.It would be nice to see a concerted effort to address this, but these kids can't vote and often their parents don't or can't vote for one reason or another. We need to start taking the Poor in our midst seriously and not just bring them up when we feel bad about how much money we make.  


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