Probably the single thing that everyone involved with or concerned about public education can agree upon is this: some children — often minority or English language–learning, but almost always “economically disadvantaged” — have not done as well as others. We usually call this the Achievement Gap, and the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind was intended to close such gaps. Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s variation on the theme of using carrots and sticks to fix our schools, is equally concerned with closing the gaps. The idea is to have all our children — rich and poor, white and minority, native English speakers and not, those with disabilities and not, boys and girls, migrants and not — becoming equally well educated.
Of course, we don’t define, let alone validly measure, how well they are educated. But we do use the proxy of achievement test scores, assuming that these will correlate with our true objective of producing adults who can function well in society.
Some children come to schools in some way handicapped — they start the race from further behind and run it without the ongoing advantages of other children. These are the ones who need something different and/or something more than what appears to work for the high-achieving students. The assumption, implicit in the critical view of teachers that has now become commonplace, is that schools simply are not getting the job done for under-achieving students.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tears into this and other mythical ideas about who succeeds and who does not. He looks at several keys to success — specific and unusual opportunities, perfect timing (month and year of birth), cultural advantages and disadvantages — to make the case that no one is “self-made.” One of his most interesting bits of evidence directly relates to achievement gaps.
Gladwell reviews in some detail a study done by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander of hundreds poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in 20 Baltimore City public schools. This longitudinal Beginning School Study started in 1982 and is ongoing, but the results from just the elementary years seemed to demonstrate something important, as reported in 2007 by Entwhisle, Alexander, and Olson in a journal article titled, “Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap.”
The children studied began first grade in different places, but the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status children nearly doubled over the elementary school years. But neither differences in native ability nor in teaching quality explained this phenomenon. Because they were given the California Achievement Test at the beginning and the end of each year, test results could show that poor children actually “out-learn” rich ones during the school year (at least insofar as CAT reading scores can indicate). During the summers, however, the poor children fall behind and the more privileged ones surge ahead. The achievement gap really stems from what is not happening for poor children when they are not in school.
This makes sense if you assume one set of children benefits from a more enriched environment (travel, camps, museums, plenty of reading material), but there is also evidence that the differences can be compensated for. The KIPP charter schools, for example, seem to do very well with disadvantaged children — but those children spend more than twice as much time in school, including much longer days, Saturdays, and summer sessions. Simply addressing the books-at-home gap, however, can have startlingly large effects on children's reading skills. Many studies have found strong correlations among the number of books in the home, the amount of voluntary reading done by children, and their tested reading levels — and this can be fixed. One way, which I noted earlier, is to pay children $2 to read and answer quizzes on books. Another is to give them books to read over the summer (remember, these are kids who cannot or do not get to the public library).
You can read one such study, reported on by James Kim, in which more than 500 children were each mailed 8 books during July and August. “The estimated treatment effects on a standardized test of reading achievement (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) were largest for students who reported owning fewer books at home, less fluent readers, and minority students. These findings suggest that a voluntary summer reading intervention may represent a scaleable and cost-effective policy for improving reading achievement among lower-performing students.”
Makes me want to collect old children's books from friends my age and start giving them away....