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How to hurdle the Achievement Gap

January 6, 2011

One of the persistent problems in education over the past 40 years has been the Achievement Gap between low-income, minority, and non-native students as compared to their mainstream counterparts. One of the objectives on NCLB was to narrow this gap, but repeated research shows that we haven’t made the strides in this area that we had all hoped.

Image by Brian Carr, courtesy of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) at

A February, 2010 report by Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) entitled Mind the (Other) Gap: The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education (Jonathan A. Plucker, PhD; Nathan Burroughs, PhD; Ruiting Song) shares a great deal of information on the student achievement gap, slicing and dicing the data into varying segments and analyzing the results. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I found their overall findings as summarized in the conclusion telling, and consistent with the other research and publications frequently cited:

“The economically disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and historically underprivileged minorities represent a smaller proportion of students scoring at the highest levels of achievement.”

With few exceptions, research generally agrees that we haven’t made real, significant progress in closing the gap. However, the question remains, why? The typical answer is “funding.” While it is true that students in the “gap” populations often attend schools that aren’t as well-funded as the mainstream majority, merely assuming funding is the problem is not sufficient to explain why minority/disadvantaged students lag behind.  And, with supplementary funding sources such as Title I, many impoverished schools are actually able to receive more assistance funding than more “well-to-do” peer schools. So, if it’s not about funding, then what?

One of the strongest contributors, I believe, in why the Achievement Gap remains a chasm has very little to do with academics itself.  Yet, at the same time, it happens to be the biggest factor in an individual’s personal and professional success — in the classroom and beyond.  It has to do with children’s social skills and social-emotional learning.

Readers who are familiar with my writing also are well-aware of the research I often cite about multiple studies from Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon and Harvard which show “85% of your personal and professional success depends on your social skills.”  That’s more than your academic achievement, more than your socio-economic situation, more than your connections — more important than all of those other factors combined. Further, effective social skills and character development can compensate for a lack in those other areas, they also make acquisition of those other success factors easier.

What does this mean and how does it relate to the classroom environment. Well, it’s simple really.  Positive social skills and social-emotional development translates directly into “classroom readiness.” Students who don’t understand that a classroom environment requires a certain level of discipline, that their job as students means they need to be respectful, paying attention, doing their best work are simply not going to get as much out of the learning environment as students who do have an appropriate level of social skills development.  It is, quite frankly, the most important thing needed for “learning:” the ability to participate effectively in a learning environment.

And we know already that too many of all children lack appropriate social skills to be successful in the classroom. NCLB actually even talked about this when it stated that “all children will be adequately prepared to participate in the classroom environment.” When I train teachers across the country, one of the questions I ask is “how many of you have the majority of your students ‘adequately prepared for the classroom environment’?”  General response I get is laughter.  When we see that 20/30/40% or more of productive learning time is lost in the classroom on managing discipline and behavior, we KNOW that too many of our kids aren’t “adequately prepared.” And you only have to look at the staggering statistics about school bullying, bullying suicides, or classroom violence — even inflicted on teachers — to know that our kids aren’t anywhere close to “adequately prepared.”

How does this involve the Achievement Gap?  Simple: our low-income low-income, minority, and non-native learners are particularly vulnerable to the problem of inadequate social skills.  Before you interpret this to mean that I blame the parents, let’s be realistic.  If you are a single parent, with multiple children, trying to hold down multiple jobs just to keep a roof over your kids’ heads and food in their mouths, when, oh when, do you have time to be the “discipline and behavior police?” Or, should you have come to this country from somewhere else in the world where your language, customs and behavior expectations differ from what our norm of behavior is in the US, how are you able to teach your children what’s appropriate in this culture?  Without external support, they have to learn by trial and error. 

Now, here are a couple of others consequences of the social skills issue:

  • Research frequently cites lack of excellent teachers for urban/high-minority/poor schools as a potential factor for the lack of student achievement in these schools.  Good teachers are harder to find for urban schools and even harder to keep once they’re there. Stands to reason.  If, on average, the lack of discipline and student behavior issues is consistently within the top-three reasons for why teachers leave the teaching profession, imagine what impact this has in an urban, impoverished educational environment?
  • Students that start behind in the area of “learning preparedness” and inadequate social skills are likely to only see further declines as they progress through the school system. Their capability to learn declines, they achieve less over time, leading to less motivation to try.  We have a 30%+ dropout rate nationally, and in some urban areas it’s as bad as 50% or more. There’s no point for these kids to stay in school; they’re not getting anything out of it, and it’s easier to drop out, hang on the street and continue the cycle of poverty for this and the next generation.
  • Employers’ #1 complaint of the young people entering the job market is that they lack the social skills they need to be successful in the workplace.  And when it takes 27 seconds to make a first impression, having a good handshake and making eye contact and speaking to your interviewer can be the difference between getting that job vs. losing it to someone who knows what it expected in the mainstream business market.

We can go on, but I think you see the point.  Studies have shown that social skills education makes both short- and long-term sense. One notable study came out two years ago, by the University of Washington where elementary students in the Seattle Public School District were given “early childhood intervention” in social skills. The UW followed these students for 15 years and at the end of that period found that these students had better mental health, better educational development and were doing better economically than the control group that did not have social skills education. And the evidence mounts that social skills education is a major factor in students’ success in the classroom and later success in the job market.

As the saying goes, “If you give a man to fish, you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  When we add social skills education into the mix of what we are offering our students — all of them, yes, but particularly those who are vulnerable to missing out on this education  — we are teaching them to fish socially/emotionally.  Not only will we see an improvement in their interpersonal skills, behavior and discipline, but we’ll also see improvements in their academic success as a by-product.  They will be on a more level playing field academically as well as economically and perhaps, in a generation, we won’t have an Achievement Gap anymore. “When will we close it?” the graphic asks. Then.  Not until then.







4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2011 9:14 am

    The gaps have always been there and will continue to separate youth in high poverty neighborhoods from the opportunities other youth have until leaders in different communities begin to build market-based strategies to narrow these gaps. I’ve been writing about this since 1993 and leading efforts to try to draw resources to volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs in Chicago for the same number of years. I actually started doing this in 1975 when I became the leader of a volunteer-based tutor/mentor program at the Montgomery Ward Corporate HQ in Chicago while building a retail advertising career.

    At Wards we supported 400 stores in 40 states with teams of HQ staff who designed stores, developed merchandise offering, and created advertising to draw customers to each store on a daily basis.

    Any city could duplicate this following (or supporting) what I’ve been doing. I started building a database of Chicago tutoring and/or mentoring programs in 1994 and have circulated this information in printed directories and an on-line program locator at . We use maps to show where poverty and poor schools are concentrated, and overlay on those maps information about existing tutor/mentor programs. We slice this information by age group served so you can see what level of program distribution there is for each age group.

    With this type of information any one who wants to close the opportunity gap by providing resources, being a volunteer, or being an advertiser, can choose what neighborhoods and what programs he supports.

    We host a conference every May and Nov to bring people from our database and information library together to network and share ideas, and to generate media stories that build more attention and resource flow.

    What is best about what we do is that we’ve built this with no support from the city and no significant funding from local philanthropic leaders. Thus, any city who wants to duplicate this and has more civic reach, can probably do it better than we do.

  2. June 23, 2011 10:04 am

    Could it be that the simple illocution of language questions and answers is missing for second (or third,,)
    language learners. It does not necessarily mean any deficit of time or attention in the hispanic home. The home could be neat and very clean and communication in the home could be very respectful. This is the description of most of the hispanic families I have known and visited as a teacher of 40 years. If students were first taught good language skills and not tested until the proficiency was adequate, they could believe they would pass the test. Our state has language proficiency tests which might just be enough for the first few years in English.

  3. Dr. William Smith Jr. permalink
    June 23, 2011 5:05 pm

    As in many minority homes, what is now lacking in the homes of Hispanic children are role models and mentors. Having worked with African American and Hispanic male children for the last 3 decades, I know that the difference mentors and role madels make on young minority males is enormous. Too often the interventions which are given these children come after the fact. Both the African American and the Hispanic communities must be willing to face some hard facts. Those being, a number of us become educated move away from the community, and never look or come back, except for funerals or wedding, mostly the former. We can make much of this change very quickly by getting invoved in our school inside and outside of our comfort zone.

    • Corinne Gregory permalink*
      June 23, 2011 5:14 pm

      I agree this is often the case. What also happens in these cultures is that, even if the parents do the best job they can raising their children in a way that’s appropriate to the culture they come from, it may not be what “works” in a job market that’s still based on Middle-Class America. So, if the kids don’t know what is appropriate HERE, they still remain behind their mainstream counterparts.

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