Closing the Achievement Gap

Over the last four decades, we’ve significantly narrowed the achievement gap between poor and middle-class children: Reading and math scores are up; more young people are going on to college; public schools are keeping pace with the explosion of knowledge in the Information Age. There is much more to learn today—our teachers are teaching it and our students are learning it. But the gap is still unacceptably large, and federal investment over the years has been grossly insufficient to solve the problems of poverty.

What goes undiscussed, what lurks in the shadows, is the specter of poverty—the harm and hurt of it and the Herculean effort poor children, their schools, and their teachers make to prevail over the conditions of their lives: unsafe neighborhoods, lack of health care, inadequate housing, and the substandard wages paid their parents. Instead of a candid discussion of what is obvious, we get, as someone said to me recently, the poverty poster child, who is the subject of slogans and million-dollar ad campaigns.

Poor children need more than their parents can give them. In a time when visions of designer clothes and cars are all around them, when respect isn’t given their teachers but corporate CEOs and movie stars make many millions of dollars—beyond what an entire neighborhood of needy families could use for health care—love, which poor families often have in abundance, is not enough.

When they see gated communities that shut them out while they live on neglected streets, our kids who are smart and sophisticated—even if they’re not on grade level—know something is wrong, and they are affected by it.

To our nation’s shame, the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, has the highest degree of childhood poverty in the advanced industrialized world. We did make some progress in the last few years of the Clinton administration toward reducing child poverty, but that now appears to have been only a brief interlude. Instead of directing surplus tax dollars to continue the battle on behalf of poor children, Congress chose to squander that money over the next decade by giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.

As a result, the latest version of Title I, the only major federal program specifically designed to address the education of poor children, doesn’t provide the level of resources necessary to compensate for the inequality of educational spending between needy and advantaged children; Title I still doesn’t even provide for all children who are eligible. Yet, Title I is expected to level that playing field, to reduce the achievement gap all of us know exists on average between poor and middle-class kids. The mythology extends to the notion that we can achieve equal education through testing, accountability, and flexibility. In other words, that we’ve cured the patient just by making the diagnosis.

Nevertheless, what schools and educators are producing for disadvantaged students is remarkable, especially in light of how underfunded most schools are in poor districts. This is not to say that disadvantaged students are doing as well as other students. And it’s not to say that there aren’t any schools failing in their responsibility. But there’s also no question that the charge that all schools educating poor children are failing is a total myth. The truth is, schools are adding even more value—to use the lingo of the day—to needy students than to the rest of our students.

What is causing the achievement gap to persist? One of the main answers can be found in the 68 percent of a child’s waking hours spent outside of school—because for most poor children, in sharp contrast to most advantaged children, that 68 percent does not produce the kind of learning that supports and extends academic achievement.

Let me quote from the studies done by Doris Entwisle and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins University because they are the premier researchers in this area: "...children from poor and middle-class families make comparable gains during the school year, but while the middle-class children make gains when they are out of school during the summer, poor and disadvantaged children make few gains, or even move backward academically." In other words, with all their problems and shortcomings, our schools are making a huge and positive difference, especially for disadvantaged youngsters. (See related article: Keep the Faucet Flowing: Summer Learning and Home Environment.)

But what they have been unable to do is overcome the fact that the families of poor children can’t afford extra tutoring, computers, museum trips, or summer camp. They live in neighborhoods with few wholesome activities available to children, and not only does academic-type learning stop when school is out, but the gains our schools have achieved with them are eroded. And it’s this brutal consequence of poverty—and not our much-maligned public schools—that has to be addressed as a major cause of the achievement gap.

Until the other institutions of our society step up to the plate to enable poor neighborhoods and families—who care every bit as much about their kids as other families—to give their kids the supports for learning outside of school that more-advantaged children routinely receive, our schools must continue to take up the slack.

So one great use states and districts can make of the new flexibility of funding in Title I is to extend the school day and year in low-performing schools in districts that have high concentrations of poverty so that the academic gains that our schools are already producing for poor children are accelerated and sustained.

The evidence on behalf of doing so could not be more compelling; in fact, many AFT districts have already negotiated these kinds of arrangements. It is also expensive. Federal funds will not go far enough to implement the kind of quality program children need widely enough—and pay the good union wages we’ll insist on for staffing it. So, we intend to fight to secure more federal funding.

For the summer component especially, other federal, state, and local agencies can step up to the plate—for example, those dealing with public health or housing or parks and recreation. Because an extended year for poor children who need it does not mean summer school that’s primarily about drilling for tests. It means rich academic activities that also involve the kinds of cultural, athletic, and other stimulating activities that advantaged children routinely receive in their communities and from their parents.

But to close the achievement gap, we need to go even further, and we can. That’s why it’s time to turn, seriously, to early childhood education.

The largest nationally representative study ever conducted on the subject, started a few years ago by the National Center for Education Statistics, examined the school-readiness skills, as well as the health and social skills, of kindergarten-age children. The results came out this past year and got very little attention. The good news is that the vast majority of these youngsters are healthy and have the pre-academic and social skills that are the foundation for solid achievement when they start elementary school. The bad news is that a small but significant percentage of our young children, primarily poor children, are in poor health and lack the pre-literacy, pre-math, and social skills that more-advantaged youngsters already have at the beginning of kindergarten. This is not because these youngsters are incapable of acquiring those skills; it is because they, unlike more-advantaged kids, just haven’t been exposed to the kinds of experiences that produce them.

But the news gets better. The children in the study were followed up at the end of their kindergarten year, and by then, the kids who were behind at the beginning of the year had fully caught up academically.

However, at the same time that poor children were making great strides as a result of kindergarten, the other kids were moving, too. Moreover, the more-advantaged kids also had the benefit of a variety of out-of-school learning experiences. As a result, these youngsters, on average, had acquired more higher-order skills than poor youngsters had, because as terrific a job as our kindergarten teachers did, they couldn’t compensate for what poor youngsters, by virtue of their poverty, couldn’t get outside of school.

Once again, the path toward closing the achievement gap becomes clear. For starters, let’s guarantee every child full-day kindergarten because that is far from the case now in this richest nation on earth. But I want to go even further than that. It’s time that we really get it right from the start. And so I propose that this country make high-quality preschool education, starting at the age of three, universally available—not compulsory, but accessible and affordable to all—with first priority given to needy children.

A few communities are doing this, but we need a national commitment. And we have a basis on which to do it. Soon, Head Start will be up for reauthorization. We must fully fund it so it not only covers all eligible children but also provides them with a high-quality program, including the health and social services and parent involvement components now present in Head Start; that’s because the evaluations tell us that these are as important to our children’s success as getting them academically ready.

And I propose that we use Head Start as the foundation for an early childhood education system that is accessible and affordable to any family that wants to use it. Because there is hardly a working family in America, whether poor or middle class, that hasn’t experienced the anxiety of finding quality early childhood education and care for its children. We all know the gut-wrenching stories of families forced to leave their children with relatives or even strangers, knowing that videos will be their child’s primary fare for the day. We all know about families lucky enough to find a decent preschool but having to defer saving for their children’s college education because their preschool costs are almost as much as a college tuition.

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Here’s a practical, affordable proposal for how to establish a universal program: through cost sharing. By that I mean, first, leveraging federal, state, and local funds to establish the quality system we need and also to pay the costs for poor families who want to enroll their children in preschool—this should be the first priority for funding. Second, by cost sharing I mean asking families who can pay and who want their children in these quality preschools to pay according to a reasonable schedule of sliding-scale fees.

Here are the many worthy things this cost-sharing proposal would accomplish. First, it would make building and running such a system eminently affordable for the nation. Second, it would give poor children the access to the high-quality early childhood education that they are now largely denied—the preventive medicine they need to compete. Third, working- and middle-class families would get a higher-quality early childhood arrangement at less cost, something they desperately want. And fourth, because the loud call for quality early childhood education is coming from families from all walks of life, answering the call could mean that children of all backgrounds would be able to learn together right from the start. Indeed, answering the need that America’s families have in common could go a long way toward repairing America’s sadly frayed social fabric and giving some real meaning to family and civic values. And what, after all, could be more important than realizing the promise of this great democracy?

This is an excerpt from AFT president Sandra Feldman's opening remarks at the QuEST 2001 Conference, which was held July 12–15 in Washington, D.C.
American Educator, Fall 2001