What we talk about when we talk about gaps
We debate testing, tenure, and “great teachers” ad nauseum. We one up each other over who is putting students more first than anyone else. We parse choice, accountability, and common core until we can barely stand one another.
We do this, not because we are gluttons for punishment, but because we know learning matters, and despite any finger pointing we might do along the way, we all want each and every student to experience learning that transforms.
However, lost among the din of our discourse on outcomes are the day-to-day experiences students have in our nation’s schools (be they private, public, or charter), experiences that are, in far too many cases, separate and not equal.
Taken collectively, these experiences shape student “achievement” (which is crudely defined by standardized test scores and value added models). Any attempt to close the achievement gap requires that we attend, first and foremost, to the Experience Gap—the gap between students’ experiences in different communities, schools, and classrooms.
Effectively addressing the Experience Gap is no easy task, as it necessitates we engage in courageous conversations about such complex issues as equity, equality and social justice. It demands we unpack interconnected gaps operating within our school and social systems.
The Understanding Gap
The mosaic of cognitive profiles within a school creates a rich tapestry of minds. Ensuring that each of those minds has equal access to challenges and successes that enhance their understanding (and the ability to apply that understanding in novel contexts) should compel us toward more innovative and nuanced approaches to designing learning environments. Educators must have the flexibility to get to know students—their cultures, aspirations, and neurodevelopmental profiles—and adapt curricula to engage students in activities meaningful to their world. Cognitively and culturally responsive institutions of learning build bridges to understanding.
We might ask:
- How can we increase student exposure to experiences that build on their strengths and nurture their understanding of the world?
- What experiences might inspire students to learn more?
The Stability Gap
Too often, our most impoverished schools have the highest turn over rates of teachers and leaders. The result? An unpredictability within the school that’s often compounded by instability in the neighborhoods surrounding it. By contrast, schools in higher socio-economic status neighborhoods boast lower turn over rates and greater stability.
While school systems are generally ill equipped to address out-of-school factors, they can—given the right vision, support, and adaptive leadership—attend to in-school factors.
We might ask:
- What will attract and keep teachers and leaders who are intellectually stimulated, emotionally motivated, and professionally committed to the schools that need them the most?
- What amount of autonomy will encourage teachers to cultivate and maintain meaningful relationships with students, parents, and community members?
- How do we best develop and empower teachers and leaders to effectively and sustainably meet the needs of these learning communities?
Whole Child Gap
“Achievement” is contingent on student well-being. The learning experiences of students in a kindergarten class of 18 with integrated play, arts, and academics are far different than students in a class of 42 where there is no AC or enough chairs. If we can find hundreds of millions for elections, surely we can find the resources to nourish the whole child in neighborhoods that need it most.
We might ask:
- What might schools look like in which each and every student is healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported?
- What services do students in low SES communities need more of and how can we better deliver them?
When we talk about the Achievement Gap, we are really talking about a collection of gaps related to equity and equality, the Experience Gap chief among them. Failing to acknowledge and address the varying experiences students have—school to school, class to class, community to community—practically guarantees that the Achievement Gap will continue. Or more importantly, it will continue to send the wrong message to students about how much we value their learning, humanity, and well-being.
It may be time to consider another set of “Common Cores” that focus on transformational practices that cultivate culturally and cognitively responsive learning communities. While these won’t be enough to overcome poverty in and of themselves, I believe they are enough to help move us closer toward ensuring that each and every student has equal access to programs that meet them where they are, and build on their strengths from there.
This piece was originally posted at Smartbrief on Education.
Image: Eat Bitter