The Simple Things We Know About Closing the Achievement Gap for Low SES Kids

Recently, I had the chance to look in-depth at school district data from an AEA other than GPAEA, and two things struck me. One was the free and reduced lunch rates of the districts in that area. While there were certainly a few districts with challenging socio-economic demographics in the area, the numbers nowhere approached our own. (I wasn’t aware that communities with single digit free and reduced rates even existed in Iowa.)

The second set of data that caught my eye was the overall proficiency rates of districts in the area.  Few of the districts had proficiency ratings for all students below 80% and many of the districts had proficiency ratings for IEP students that exceeded 50%.  The achievement gap was certainly observable, but it wasn’t as significant as the one we deal with daily in Southeast Iowa.

I thought of this again when I read the Des Moines Register’s opinion section Sunday.  In that section, Richard Doak wrote a column about the impact of poverty on Iowa schools and about how that particular demographic had changed so rapidly in recent years.  I agree that Iowa’s rapidly shifting demographics have presented our system with some unique challenges that perhaps not everyone fully appreciates.  However, I also believe that we are far from powerless in overcoming this set of challenges.

Here is our challenge in Iowa and, particularly, in Southeast Iowa.  We have to believe that all kids can learn at high levels and that we have the tools and understand the antecedents necessary to make that happen.

We need to refuse to buy into the idea that we won’t solve the achievement gap until we somehow address poverty issues in our state. No one knows more than I the unique challenges presented by low SES students, but for educators to use those challenges as an excuse for low performance in schools is worse than defeatist; it is insidious and a disservice to the very kids and families we are committed to serving.  The truth is that we have known for years what works for kids in poverty. We just have to come up with the courage and will to make that happen.  Several years ago now, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University speak about what it takes to close the achievement gap for kids in poverty.  (In fact Dr. Murphy released a book on the topic through Sage Publication in 2010 called Educators Handbook to Closing the Achievement Gap.)  Here’s what he said and it’s pretty simple.

Ready?  Kids in poverty are significantly more sensitive to the quantity and quality of the education they receive than are their more affluent counterparts.  Sound like rocket science to anyone?  One of the challenging aspects of closing the gap is that while low SES subgroups make academic progress, so does the general population. Thank goodness that we now know that effect sizes differ for those two groups when they are exposed to high quality educational practices. That means that kids in poverty respond best to better instruction.  All kids deserve quality instruction, but for students in poverty it is an absolute must. Too often students in poverty receive marginal instruction with devastating results, whereas students from more supportive environments often have instructional support systems outside of school. The second place where kids in poverty are more sensitive to their education systems is in the quantity of education they receive.  Kids in poverty make larger relative gains when they are exposed to extended learning opportunities.  So in addition to needing the best instruction, kids in poverty need more instruction.  That is why I don’t believe that all kids in Iowa need a longer school year.  I believe that extended learning opportunities need to be made available to the kids who most need them.  (Iowa is on the right track with this, offering universal pre-school to 4-year-olds, but it is time to focus resources more strategically if we really want to bring all kids to proficiency in an age marked by limited public resources.)  I have said for several years now that 90% proficiency is possible in any community. I just don’t believe that all communities are going to reach that milestone within 180 seven-hour school days. I use 90% because we know that about 10% of our population deal will legitimate learning disabilities or other handicapping conditions.  Poverty is not a disability.

There are certainly some other factors that influence closing the gap besides the quality and quantity of instruction, but they aren’t things that we can impact as easily. Parent involvement is a big piece and I see educators in Iowa becoming increasingly skilled in strategies to engage parents.  However, too many educators still feel that parent involvement is 100% essential and that parents who don’t get involved somehow create an impenetrable obstacle.  It’s a seductive excuse, but it just doesn’t wash with the research.  The truth is that lots of kids in Iowa excel every year with little or no support at home.  Parental involvement is tremendously helpful.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s just not absolutely essential.  Quality social supports like health care and nutrition are no doubt important to student learning also, but these areas often require community partnerships and those are not always available in every community and, when they are available, they are often not directly under our control.

What do we most directly control when it comes to seeing that kids in poverty close the gap?  It’s painfully simple.  How effective can we make the instruction received by students in poverty and how much of that high quality instruction can we provide?  Our AEA is uniquely positioned to impact these two factors, perhaps better than anyone else.  It is our moral imperative and I hope it is something that, upon reflection, we can all get excited about.  If you’ll allow me one SE Iowa colloquialism, “This ain’t mission impossible folks.”  It’s just extremely hard work, but I can think of no work more worth doing.

Dr. Jon Sheldahl, Chief Administrator
800-622-0027 ext. 1214

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