Thursday, October 6, 2011

Attacking the Achievement Gap with More Learning Time

For the last several decades, education elites in Washington DC and state capitols have propagated the idea that the the achievement gap can be closed simply through better leadership, better curriculum and better teachers.   But more and more, overwhelming evidence argues that closing the achievement gap requires us to provide disadvantaged students with significantly more learning time.

Children who do well in school come to us, generally, with some special advantages.   Most of them accumulate thousands of hours of informal learning at home before they come to school.   They have larger vocabularies, better understanding of phonics, superior preparation for the classroom experience.

This discrepancy between home learning experiences continues unabated throughout school.     It is a mistake to believe that any teacher can wave a magic wand and make up this difference with good teaching alone.   Learning takes time.  Learning is hard work.  Students who are educationally disadvantaged aren't going to make up the gap, unless they compensate for their disadvantage with extra time learning, and lots of it.  A ton of research has been accumulating on the cumulative learning disadvantage arising from shortfalls in vocabulary among disadvantaged students.  

"One of the most persistent findings in reading research is that the extent of students’ vocabulary knowledge relates strongly to their reading comprehension and overall academic success (see Baumann, Kame‘enui, & Ash, 2003; Becker, 1977; Davis, 1942; Whipple, 1925). This relationship seems logical; to get meaning from what they read, students need both a great many words in their vocabularies and the ability to use various strategies to establish the meanings of new words when they encounter them. Young students who don’t have large vocabularies or effective word-learning strategies often struggle to achieve comprehension. Their bad experiences with reading set in motion a cycle of frustration and failure that continues throughout their schooling (Hart & Risley, 2003; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 2000; White, Graves, & Slater, 1990). Because these students don’t have sufficient word knowledge to understand what they read, they typically avoid reading. Because they don’t read very much, they don’t have the opportunity to see and learn very many new words. This sets in motion the well known “Matthew Effects,” Stanovich’s (1986) application of Matthew, 25:29–“the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  .  Lehr, et al, A Focus on Vocabulary, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning
The achievement gap comes, in part, from a gap in learning time, informal and formal, at home.   You can find some resources on the cumulative impact of the vocabulary gap in "Big Ideas in Reading", an on line resource maintained by the University of Oregon College of Education:
  • The importance of vocabulary knowledge to school success, in general, and reading comprehension, in particular, is widely documented. 
  • The National Research Council  concluded that vocabulary development is a fundamental goal for students in the early grades.
  • Hart and Risley's seminal study tells us that there is a vast difference in the number of words heard by pre kindergarten children at home, with some children hearing three times as many spoken words than others.  A child living with well educated parents will hear 30 million more spoken words in four years than chlidren coming from less well educated families.  They compared children from advantaged families to those in disadvantaged families and found that three year old children in the advantaged families used a greater vocabulary at age 3 than the parents of disadvantaged children.  
  • The discrepancy in vocabulary gets larger and larger as children get older, building greater and greater disadvantages.  
Big Ideas in Reading says: "Research has shown that children who read even ten minutes a day outside of school experience substantially higher rates of vocabulary growth between second and fifth grade than children who do little or no reading. (Anderson & Nagy, 1992, see References)"  The achievement gap cannot be closed without closing the gap in learning time that begins at home.  For students who are deprived of that precious learning time at home, we need to provide make up time in school and after school.    Look at the difference in the number of words read by the most active readers and least active readers.   
Percentile Rank Minutes Per Day Words Read Per Year
Books Text Books Text
98 65.0 67.3 4,358,000 4,733,000
90 21.2 33.4 1,823,000 2,357,000
80 14.2 24.6 1,146,000 1,697,000
70 9.6 16.9 622,000 1,168,000
60 6.5 13.1 432,000 722,000
50 4.6 9.2 282,000 601,000
40 3.2 6.2 200,000 421,000
30 1.8 4.3 106,000 251,000
20 0.7 2.4 21,000 134,000
10 0.1 1.0 8,000 51,000
2 0 0 0 8,000
What does all this mean for closing the achievement gap?   We need to attack educational disadvantages with more time learning, but we can only justify spending public money to do that for students and families who are willing to reward our investment by meeting high expectations.  
  • Students with educational disadvantages must spend more time in school engaging in reading, math and science.    
  • We need to lengthen the school day and lengthen the school year for those students, the achievement gap is a manifestation of less time learning.  
  • We should create after school programs with academic focus to assist students 
  • Students who don't speak English need extra time to learn English and the sooner that they learn English fluently the better.   We should accomplish this objective with extra immersion time in the early grades.  
  •  We should offer increased learning time opportunities to students and families who make good use of that opportunity.    If we provide increased learning time at public expense, the students who receive that opportunity should meet high expectations of attendance and hard work during school and after school.  Parents and students who benefit should sign contracts promising to meet high expectations.   
  • As a community, we must expect parents, day care providers and early childhood programs to provide learning rich environments.   
  • We should assign more homework, and especially homework that increases the amount of home-reading that students do. Not copying lists and doing endless drill, but reading literature that builds vocabulary and reading fluency.   
  • As a community we need to provide more adult mentors to disadvantaged students.   
I'll have more to say in future posts about making up the achievement gap with more learning time.

Expanded Learning Time Links
Expanded Learning Time Matters
Expanded Learning Time "Rocketship Education"
Apollo 20 Project  Creative expanded learning time program

Mass 2020   Massachusetts 2020's mission is to expand educational and economic opportunities for children and families across Massachusetts
Expanding Learning Time in High School
National Center on Time and Learning


  1. As a sophomore in high school, I agree that teachers should assign more homework. We need to read more, and we need more math homework.

  2. All teachers give different amounts of homework. Some give too little, some give too much, and many give to little of one kind of homework while they give too much of another kind of homework.

  3. Too much learning time can also have a negative effect if students are overly stressed. Moderation and the right kind of homework are key.

  4. Thanks for your comments, anonymous. Are you one anonymous person, or three.


comments welcome