Narrowing the Achievement Gap

Explanations for the achievement gap—and levels of concern over its existence—vary widely, and are the source of much controversy, especially since efforts to "close the gap" have become some of the more politically prominent education reform issues.

Standards-based reform and No Child Left Behind
The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) focuses on standards, aligned tests and school accountability to ensure that all students have the same educational opportunities. As written, the legislation requires that all students in all groups eventually perform at grade level in all tests, and that schools show continual improvement toward this goal (otherwise known as "Adequate Yearly Progress," or AYP) or face sanctions. Some have noted that schools with the highest proportion of poor and minority students generally face the greatest challenges to meeting these goals, and are therefore punished unfairly by the law.

More recently, the Obama Administration has instituted the Race to the Top (RTTT) program which provides financial incentives to states to produce measurable student gains. RTTT’s primary goals are to improve student achievement, close achievement gaps, and improve high school graduation rates. The initiative is similar to the No Child Left Behind Act in that it has many of the same goals, though there is a bigger emphasis on closing the achievement gap between high and low performing schools The major difference between the two educational reform programs is that RTTT is a competitive grant program that provides incentives for schools to change, while the NCLB Act mandated various changes in state and local education systems.

School-based reform
A number of interventions have been implemented at the school, district and state level to address the achievement gap. These have included investment in pre-kindergarten programs, class size reduction, small schools, curricular reform, alignment of pre-kindergarten through college standards and expectations, and improved teacher education programs. Many schools have started using after-school tutoring sessions and remedial programs. Such efforts aim to accelerate the learning of minority students to greater than a year's growth in one year's time so that over time they catch up to their peers. Other schools have started de-tracking their students in order to provide the same quality education for all students, regardless of race.

Teacher-focused reform
Another focus of reform efforts to address the achievement gap has been on teacher development, as research shows teachers to be the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement. This reform effort has been both top-down, in the form of higher state standards for teacher education and preparation, as well as bottom-up, through programs like Teach for America and AmeriCorps that aim to address educational inequity by recruiting and training teachers specifically to work in high-needs schools.

Investment in early childhood
One policy strategy aimed at preventing, or at least mitigating, the achievement gap at its earliest stages is investment in early childhood education. Economic research shows that investment at this stage is both more effective and cost effective than interventions later in a child’s life. Head Start and various state-funded pre-kindergarten programs target students from low-income families in an attempt to equal the playing field for these children before school begins. In addition to increased access, there has also an increased national focus on raising quality standards for Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs, and in improving training and professional development for early care providers. The evidence in favor of investing in early childhood education as a means of closing the achievement gap is strong: various studies, including the Carolina Abecedarian study, Child-Parent Center study, and HighScope Perry Preschool study, have shown that pre-K programs can have a positive and long-lasting impact on academic achievement of low-income and minority students.

Effects of narrowing the gap
Sociologists Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips have argued that narrowing the black-white test score gap "would do more to move the United States toward racial equality than any politically plausible alternative". As already discussed, there is also strong evidence that narrowing the gap would have a significant positive economic and social impact.

Narrowing The Achievement Gap Through Technology

Computer and technology use have been linked to increased student achievement. “When teachers and administrators make a sustained commitment to the use of computers in the classroom, student achievement increases (Mann & Shafer, 1997). Using technology as a tool for narrowing the achievement gap begins with a purpose, communication, listening, and collaboration. These skills can be achieved through the use of weblogs, social networking sites, feeds, and a myriad of other multimedia. In classrooms, students can communicate internally, or they can work side by side with others who are located thousands of miles away. Through the use of technology, presentations can be archived so that the material can be reviewed at anytime. “All teachers could record important parts of what they do in the classroom that can then be archived to the class Weblog and used by students who may have missed the class or just want a refresher on what happened.” (Richardson, p. 117) Having access to information on the web gives students an advantage to learning. “Students at all levels show more interest in their work and their ability to locate and reflect upon their work is greatly enhanced as are the opportunities for collaborative learning” (Richardson, p.28). Weblogs are different than posts or comments; they require students to analyze and synthesize the content and communicate their understanding with the audience responses in mind.

Technology has been incorporated into the Standards. Even though the NCLB Act holds school districts accountable for student achievement, there are still many students who do not have the resources at home to fully take part in these excellent educational tools. Some teachers feel that technology is not the solution and see it as a risk. Therefore, technology is not always being used to its fullest potential by teachers and students do not gain the advantages technology offers. “Given the fact that the amount of information going online shows no sign of slowing, if they are unable to consistently collect potentially relevant information for their lives and careers and quickly discern what of that information is most useful, they will be at a disadvantage.” (Richardson, p. 73). According to the U.S. Census, by 2012, it is estimated that 70% of homes will have broadband access. While this is a large percentage, it still leaves 30% of households without internet access. The government has lent its hand in closing the Global Achievement Gap by granting funding for low-income school districts for programs such as one-on-one computing, however, the fact that many of these students do not have online capability at home is still a main issue.