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What we talk about when we talk about gaps

5 min read


We debate testing, tenure and great teachers ad nauseum. We one up one another over who is putting students first most. We parse achievement gap, accountability and Common Core until we can barely stand one another.

On top of that, we are so eager to see improvement as of yesterday, we horse-race reform. “Math Scores is taking the lead around the first corner, while Teacher Effectiveness is making gains on the outside. Don’t count out Reading Proficiency until the last straightaway, though. Oh, look! Out of the blue, International Achievement is surging ahead, while Another Study has fallen back, giving Reformer a chance at making the podium! It is still looking like Random Rhetoric might have the legs to win another crown!”

It is sign and symptom of what we all know to be true: Learning matters. It is the reason we beat one another over the head with test scores and mandate upon mandate. However, lost among the den of our discourse on outcomes is the process by which we come to them — the day-to-day experiences of students in our nation’s schools, be they urban, suburban, rural, private, public or charter.

The experiences students have in these varied locations are very separate and not at all equal. It is this, the experience gap, that has garnered far less attention than it deserves. Not all students have equal access to challenge and success, engagement and satisfaction, or safety and peace of mind.

The causes behind this are myriad. Finger pointing at poverty, unions, policymakers or corporations will do little to effect the kind of change that matters, yet that does not mean we dismiss these forces. They become our leverage points, our way to personalizing and transforming buildings from schools to learning communities.

Educator gap

Too often, our most impoverished schools have teachers with the least training and the highest turnover rates. The experience students have amid such instability is far different from in schools where teachers and administrators are stable and dedicated to improving the school for the long haul.

The questions we might ask:

  • What will it take to attract and keep the best and the brightest in these schools, where they can make substantive difference over a longer period?
  • What will sustainably engage upwardly mobile educators so they are intellectually stimulated, emotionally motivated and committed to schools that need them most?
  • How can we stabilize schools so that all students have at least one place in their lives that is stable?

Cognitive-diversity gap

The curricular landscape of our schools has homogenized during the past 20 years as increasingly more standardized testing and teaching have prioritized a certain type of learning. Physical education, the arts and free time have been sidelined in favor of more reading, writing and arithmetic as preparation for achieving test scores. Yet, the cognitive diversity of our students remains unchanged, and students who struggle in traditional subjects find increasingly less to look forward to. Their experience of such schooling leaves strengths and potential talents uncultivated and unattended.

Questions to ask:

  • What might our schools, a school day or classrooms look like that not only meet the needs of each student but also leverage their cognitive strengths to minimize their weaknesses?
  • What kind of understanding of the science of learning would help our educators better understand and utilize students’ cognitive diversity?
  • How might we close this gap so that all students feel they have equal access to challenges and successes that are meaningful to them?

Whole-child gap

Students’ well-being must be first and foremost in our effort to cultivate minds. Students in a kindergarten class of 18 that integrates play and the arts with their academic learning have a far different experience compared with students in a class of 42 where there is no air conditioning and not enough chairs. Meeting the social, intellectual and emotional needs of 42 versus 18 students means that some are going to be undernurtured.

Questions we might ask:

  • What might schools look like in which all students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged and supported to the extent they need?
  • How might we develop and empower leader and teacher capacity to create learning environments that reflect students’ cultures and involve those students in learning that students deem meaningful?
  • What services do students in low SES communities need more of, and how can we better deliver them?

The gap between what students experience, school to school, class to class and community to community practically guarantees that the achievement gap will continue to plague us. It might be time we consider another set of “common cores” that focus on transformational practices while cultivating culturally responsive learning communities. While these won’t be enough to overcome poverty in and of themselves, I believe they are enough to move us closer to ensuring that all students have equal access to programs that meet them where they are, and build their strengths from there.

Jason Flom (@JasonFlom) is an educator, an advocate and a writer. He is the director of learning platforms for the Q.E.D. Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization providing training, coaching and strategic consulting in the re-engagement of disengaged learners, effective design of engaging learning, youth voice, democratic practices, assessment for and of learning, equity, data collection and analysis, and math-literacy coaching.