Getting Serious About Closing the Achievement Gap

Nurturing conditions where ALL students succeed

Too many schools continue to struggle with closing the achievement gap. The No Child Left Behind legislation was supposed to change all of this, though today we still have too many students left behind. Lawmakers continue to churn out legislation to address the problem, but results remain dismal and disappointing. Parents, educators, and lawmakers are frustrated. Still the gap exists.

I gained some keen insight early in my career about what works in helping students to learn. Working in schools where a significant number of students came from low socio-economic backgrounds gave me ample opportunity to experiment with what works in reaching low-performing, difficult-to-reach, and difficult-to-teach students.

In fact, my first experience as a teacher in a large urban school district was in an inner city school where both achievement and discipline were a challenge. Everything I learned in that experience empowered me to be successful in subsequent years to help ALL students succeed academically and behaviorally.

Years later, after becoming an assistant principal, I used the same background and tools to support a staff struggling with poor achievement and mounting discipline problems. If the truth be told, most assistant principals aspire to lead a school where achievement and discipline are not a problem. I did not have this luxury in my first school as a principal. Within three years, however, our school was recognized and written up in the local paper as one of the top 10 performing schools in our district of more than 130 schools. The simple conditions we nurtured as a staff had a huge impact.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, the first condition for success is to ask the right question. There are lots of strategies and programs that work. Sometimes educators grab a highly touted program or implement a “sure fire” strategy out of desperation. Most programs and strategies work, but asking the right question is important. “Does this work?” is a poor way of judging whether or not to implement a strategy.

John Hattie’s research on what works indicates that almost any program or strategy principals and teachers implement will work. A better way to judge the worth of a strategy or program is to ask how well it works. Does it contribute significantly to a year’s growth? Hattie’s research identifies those things that contribute significantly to a student’s year’s growth.

I was elected Teacher of the Year for two consecutive years in two different schools. If I had to point to one condition that helped me succeed as a teacher it would be positive relationships with my students. Positive relationships are also an important condition for closing the achievement gap. Relationships drive learning.

Teachers who develop positive relationships with students are better able to help students learn. Students simply respond better to teachers where strong and positive relationships exist. How does one create positive relationship? Trust is the foundation. In his book, Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships, Ken Blanchard explains how trust and a positive relationship are necessary for training “killer” whales. It is no less true for students.

In my first year as a principal, I knew that our school would never close the achievement gap without addressing the discipline gap. I moved quickly to provide the staff with the necessary positive tools and motivated them to become discipline gurus. To close the achievement gap it is important that another key condition be in place, a well-discipline atmosphere where learning is the norm. We learned and used positive and proactive strategies that support learning, thus creating a climate for the same.

We cannot close the achievement gap when there is a constant flow of students to the principal’s office. To eliminate this revolving door, I put together a collection of strategies to address the problem: “The Teacher Guru: 34 Things a Teacher Can Do in the Classroom before Sending Students to the Office.”

We can do better in closing the achievement gap for all learners: poor, affluent, at-risk or difficult-to-teach. It is easy, however, to be misled about the conditions that drive learning today. Because of numerous distractions, principals and teachers often lose sight of what really works. They get lost in the minutiae of political posturing, piles of paper work, and excessive testing that produces a never-ending stack of data. Both data and some testing are important conditions for assessing learning. But there are other more pertinent conditions that educators must embrace to close the achievement gap successfully.