November 17, 2009
Closing of the Achievement Gap
The achievement gap refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. The gap has been an issue seen within the educational system pertaining to the effects of class and race. According to many, some excuses and explanations for this disparity include: family and health conditions, teacher expectations and experience, school spending and changing student exclusion rates, television viewing, and hip-hop culture. Many believe that the achievement gap is best defined by the difference between success rates of minorities or disadvantage students versus their white counterparts. Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service describes fourteen home and school conditions that place low-income and minority students at a disadvantage. The home conditions are: low birth weights, exposure to lead poisoning, hunger and malnutrition, guardians who rarely read to their children, heavy television viewing, single-parent households, high student mobility rates, and minimal parent participation in school matters. The school conditions are: easier courses, teachers with less experience, teachers who are inadequately prepared or unlicensed, fewer computers in school and less Internet use at home, larger class sizes, and unsafe schools.
There are several ways of measuring the achievement gap. One useful is to compare academic performance among African-American, Hispanic, and white students on standardized assessments. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that reading scores for 17-year-olds narrowed dramatically for both African-American and Hispanic students from 1975 through 1988. From 1990 to 1999, however, these gaps either remained constant or grew slightly in both reading and mathematics. Another form of measurement is to compare the highest level of educational attainment for various groups. Hispanic and African-American high school students are more likely to drop out of high school in every state compared to their white counterparts. Furthermore, of those students enrolling in college, Hispanic and black young adults are only half as likely to earn a college degree as white students.
To overcome these deficits, many states have taken a proactive approach to closing the gap. For example, Texas requires schools to show each year a minimum proficiency level (percent proficient) in each student subgroup. In the five years since this legislation was enacted, the percentage of African-American students passing statewide exams rose by 31%, and the percentage of Hispanic students passing the exam rose by 29%. Meanwhile, the percentage of white students passing the exam grew by only 18%. This means the achievement gap in Texas closed by 13% and 11% for African-American and Hispanic students, respectively. Also, in Missouri a state task force on K-16 issues released a report early in 2002, which concluded that improving teacher quality is the single most important factor in eliminating the achievement gap. The report recommends raising teacher quality through increased accountability, better understanding of urban issues, and financial incentives for teachers in low-performing schools. Other methods for closing the gap would include, early childhood care and education, improving teacher quality, early intervention for college, and extra learning opportunities like after school programs.
The debate is one-sided, popular belief supports the importance of closing the gap. In my opinion, since the importance of closing the gap is undisputable there are no pros or cons—closing the gap is of critical importance. However, the methods by which schools and educators are using to close the gap have their strengths and weaknesses. Some of these methods include, class sizes, creating smaller schools, expanding early-childhood programs, raising academic standards, improving the quality of teachers provided poor and minority students, and encouraging more minority students to take high-level courses. Since the importance of closing the gap is undeniable, I will focus on the pros and con of smaller class sizes. Some of the benefits of having fewer classes include:
- Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
- Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
- Fewer students are less distracting to each other than a large group of children.
- Teachers have more time to teach because there are fewer discipline problems.
- Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
- Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities
- The costs for reducing class sizes are too high for what they call the slight benefits
- Critics believe that popular (and political) support for class size reduction causes that approach to prevail over other, more effective reforms
- Smaller classes require additional classrooms, calling for construction or renovation
- Smaller class sizes are most effective when there are sufficient numbers of quality teachers—fewer students in a classroom with an inadequate teacher may be even less beneficial than more students with a qualified teacher
- Another concern of critics of class size reduction is whether the achievement benefits for children in smaller classes are temporary or lasting