Sunday, February 14, 2010

School Board looks at the learning gap!

At Wednesday's Board Workshop the Board of Education listened to a a number of presentations on efforts to improve achievement among English Language Learners and what are often called "first generation learners." A first-generation learner, as I use the term, is a person who is the first person in his recent family tree to reach a certain level of learning. I want to take a break from the posts on the Minnesota's Constitutional Education Clause for a bit and talk about this issue, sometimes called the achievement gap. When I return to that thread, we shall see if the two threads perhaps have an important relationship.

We know that students come to school with vastly different skill sets. Partly the difference is accounted for by the educational attainment of the parents. Partly it is accounted for by the family attitude towards learning, towards reading, and towards education as a road to success. One significant difference among children when they come to school is size and depth of vocabulary that a child brings with him to school. I pulled some quotes for this post off of an article by an author from the University of Toronto, but I could have pulled this information from the works of many others. For the original, click on this link:

By the end of grade two, children’s vocabulary already differs a great deal. English,speaking children whose vocabulary is in the lowest 25 percent know an average of 4000 root word meanings. Children with average vocabulary know about 6000 root word meanings. Children in the highest 25 percent vocabulary group know an average of 8000 root word meanings (Biemiller, 2005). Thus very large differences in vocabulary have developed in the preliterate period before children have had much opportunity to acquire vocabulary from reading. Even if children with low vocabularies add 1000 meanings per year after grade two (as many do), by the time they begin grade six they will have about the same size vocabulary as children from the top 25 percent had at the end of grade two. They continue to be an average of two grade levels behind average children in vocabulary—which shows up in the ranges of grade-equivalents seen in standardized reading comprehension by grade six. This is sufficient to make success in high school unlikely. (In fact, 30% of students are reported to “drop out” of high school in the U.S. Greene & Winters, 2006)
Sometime people frame this as a racial or economic issue, but its really a preparation issue.

"Students with inadequate vocabularies are at a much higher risk of performing poorly in high school, community college, or university (Hazenberg & Hulstijn, 1995; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). The source of these difficulties occurs very early in life. Young children with relatively small vocabularies comprehend less well. Because they comprehend less well, they often choose to read less. Over time students who read less acquire smaller vocabularies and comprehend less in later years (Stanovich, 1986). Children with smaller vocabularies will continue to lag behind children with larger vocabularies


Time and time again, research has shown that children who come to school "ready to learn," come with significantly larger vocabularies, significantly better "phonemic awareness," and come more used to staying on task when it comes to reading, writing, and other school skills. Students are coming to school with the benefits of family preparation for school in varying amounts, and the differences are very significant.

One source of these differences is vocabulary exposure in the home environment. Clearly, words that are not heard or read cannot be learned. Hart and Risley (1995) have shown that by the age of three, children living in advantage homes hear three times as many words spoken as children living in disadvantaged homes. Furthermore, in advantaged homes and some working class homes, parents actively explain word meanings in the course of conversation, story reading, etc. (Weizman & Snow, 2001; Hart and Risley, 1999). Thus it is not surprising that by age three children from advantaged homes already understand many more word meanings than children from disadvantaged homes.


This gap has in school preparation has always existed. In fact, the number of students coming to school prepared for reading was far smaller at the end of the 19th century than it was at the end of the 20th.

In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college. The median years of school attained by the adult population, 25 years old and over, had registered only a scant rise from 8.1 to 8.6 years over a 30 year period from 1910 to 1940. National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

If you are one of those people who think that this is no big deal--that kids are sort of blank slates when they come to school--and all they have to do is put on their thinking caps and learn, well may I politely and respectfully disagree. A major factor in the success of children is the level of preparation that they have when they come to school, along with the support for learning that they have at home. Now children can overcome disadvantages. Sure they can. But when they do, we say they have "beat the odds."

Now the greatest issue in education at the beginning of the 21st century has been whether we can effectively close the statistical gap amongst learners who come to school well prepared for learning and those who do not. As a society we have waded into this complex issue with little careful discussion about the magnitude of the challenge and the implications for how we deliver education.

We know that across the teaching profession in the United States there has been a sense that the general public, politicians, pundits, and yes, even school board members, lack a full appreciation for the demands that have been made upon teaching by a central shift in mission of the public education system. It has contributed to morale issues among many highly effective teachers. Part of the problem has been that children are not distributed among communities, among schools, and among classrooms within schools randomly. Some teachers, and some schools, and some communities have vastly more students who are well prepared and others have fewer. The major reason is that the distribution of first generation students as well as the distribution of families who are equipped to prepare their children to learn, is not equally distributed amongst neighborhoods and communities.

But the No Child Left Behind movement was predicated on the political judgment, or should I say the politicians whim, that simply by setting national goals, we could will away these differences. Under NCLB we would declare that schools with children who came to school unprepared for advanced learning would be called failing schools unless they eliminated these gaps in learning within a time period set by politicians in Washington and in the various State Capitols. No research was done to determine what changes, what resources, what different methods of instruction would be required to bring about this transformation.

Now don't misunderstand me. Evidence shows that there was within our education system a vast unrealized potential. We know that the pressure to leave no child left behind has resulted in progress. The progress has not been as fast as the politicians decreed by fiat at the beginning. But there has indeed been progress. We have discovered new strategies, new ways of delivering instruction, and restored some older methods which were tried and true to their rightful place in education, and this has made some considerable difference. But at the same time, there has been this assumption at the State and National level that teachers and schools and school districts are the only variable in how well, and whether, students succeed. As a result, some very fine teachers working in some very fine schools, have been branded as failures in the media because they have not been able to bridge the gap in pre-school preparation as fast as the politicians decreed.

One of the questions that we need to answer, that is the people who are responsible for the quality of our public education, is how to judge the amount of progress that is possible. If a teacher has a classroom of several dozen students who come to school already in the bottom 25% in terms of vocabulary, or in terms of other forms of school preparation, how are we to evaluate success in that classroom as compared to another classroom which has several dozen students who come to school already in the upper 25% in terms of vocabulary, or in terms of other forms of school preparation. And, if we decide that it is important that the children in the two classroom eventually reach similar levels of proficiency, how long should we expect it to take to bridge the gap, and what resources are required.

These aren't questions that can be answered by pulling them out of our ears, or wishing the answers. If you think you know the answer, well I'm betting you are wrong. I'll have more to say about this in my next post.

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