Gap-Closing Approaches to Consider

Gap-Closing Approaches to Consider

Raising proficiency and graduation rates for all students regardless of their background or identity has long been a focus of education policy in the United States. As a result, teachers are tasked with closing opportunity and academic gaps—primarily between white students and their nonwhite peers—and improving outcomes for all.

Although the concept of educational achievement gaps is not new, it remains a nettlesome problem in many school districts. For decades, policymakers and education experts have attempted to reconcile this issue in a variety of ways, including school choice policies, teacher training, and updated classroom practices, yet disparities persist.

One explanation for the continuing gaps may be rising income inequality, which, according to sources such as the Pew Research Center, is higher in the U.S. than in many other industrialized nations. Of note, federal statistics indicate that around 50% of all K–12 students qualify for free and reduced lunch; while this statistic doesn’t necessarily mean half of all students live in poverty, it is troubling nonetheless.

Often, discussions about these disparities focus on race—and rightfully so, given the history of racial injustice in the U.S. and its continuing effect on the education system. But despite the persistence of racial discrimination across myriad aspects of American society, some educators and school districts are making progress in their efforts to narrow lingering opportunity and academic gaps.

Next, we'll take a look at some of the work currently underway.

Putting COVID-19 relief funds to work

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently announced a plan for using COVID-19 relief funds to “attack the achievement gap” in his state, primarily by focusing on reading instruction.

To advance Florida toward DeSantis’s stated goal of a 90% reading proficiency rate by 2024, the governor’s office has stated that $475 million in federal coronavirus relief money will be spent on “reading programs, training reading coaches, and supporting childcare facilities to help families get back to work and children become proficient readers.”

Beyond encompassing a fundamental aspect of education, reading has been identified as the source of tremendous gaps between students with a low socioeconomic status and their wealthier peers.

Making gap-closing a schoolwide undertaking

As a 2019 blog post on the School of Education at American University's website contended, “School administrators such as principals and superintendents are in a unique position to work on closing the achievement gap.” With this in mind, researchers at the institution developed a framework to help guide local education leaders along the path to closing achievement gaps at site and community levels by taking the following steps:

  • Disaggregate data: To identify where and when gaps are occurring, administrators are encouraged to examine student performance data among “various classes and various subjects within schools.” Armed with this specific and focused information, they can more effectively guide instruction while developing a better understanding of which tactics are working and which need work.

  • Look for examples of existing equity: By observing students' and teachers' activities and interactions, administrators can glean more insight into “educational dynamics that may drive student performance.”

  • Establish a positive, performance-driven culture: If students believe in themselves and their potential, they are more likely to succeed and achieve the high expectations set for them.

  • Create a support network: Administrators can mitigate the impact of out-of-school factors such as unstable housing, financial insecurity, and frequently unavailable parents/guardians by prioritizing student support systems like mentorship programs.

The approaches outlined above are explored in more detail on the National Education Association (NEA) website, which also recommends gap-closing strategies such as targeted intervention, stepping up literacy and math instruction to strengthen foundational skills, family outreach, and teacher training.

Considering the student experience

Research has shown that students of color and learners from other marginalized groups are often subject to harsher disciplinary policies than their white peers. These students are also more likely to attend schools that offer fewer enrichment opportunities and have less supportive climates or cultures. In a piece for the Panorama Education website, Jack McDermott termed these inequities “experience gaps.”

According to McDermott, some district leaders have begun to address these experience gaps in recent years by working to gauge how students feel about school, how connected they are to school staff, and the overall state of their “social-emotional wellbeing.” In the Los Angeles School District, officials who conducted this type of assessment learned that “African-American students viewed their school environment as less fair, less safe, and less welcoming compared to their peers.” It stands to reason that students' ability to succeed academically will be negatively impacted by feeling unsafe or unwelcome at school, so gap-closing strategies that begin with how students experience school before moving into academic goals certainly merit a closer look.

The bottom line

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution here, but given the profound implications of inequity among students of different races and socioeconomic statuses, it is critical that educators make every effort to close academic and experiential gaps.

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