Published Online: April 2, 1997

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How To Close the Achievement Gap

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Poor and minority children are systematically bludgeoned into low academic performance with a steady dose of low-level, boring, if not downright silly assignments and curricula.

The recent political eruption over the Oakland, Calif., school district's decision to recognize "ebonics" leaves fertile ground for change in its aftermath. It began as a racially charged debate over the legitimacy of standard English vs. African-American speech patterns. But it has since focused many eyes across the country to what motivated Oakland school board members in the first place: the growing achievement gap between low-income African-American students and their more affluent, mostly white peers. After years of neglect, many policymakers and civic leaders are again demanding answers.

We are encouraged to see national attention focused on the schooling of African-American students. On the other hand, we find that many of the proposed solutions miss the point. Training teachers in ebonics--like vouchers, charter schools, site-based management, school uniforms, and other popular education reform proposals--fails to get at the heart of the matter. The simple fact is that students, poor and rich alike, learn to high levels when they are taught to high levels. Yet poor and minority children in this country are systematically bludgeoned into low academic performance with a steady dose of low-level, boring, if not downright silly assignments and curricula.

Our work takes us into many urban schools where we witness the mundane daily routines of lessons and classroom practices. Here are three snapshots of typical assignments gathered last semester from elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms:

  • A class of 4th graders is asked to read a poem about a pizza: The eight lines describe the variety of toppings, from mushrooms to anchovies, that go on a pizza. The students spend considerable time copying each line of the poem into a book they have made by hand, and decorating the book with "lots of color." Each student then writes one sentence about what kind of pizza he or she likes best. This is intended to be an exercise in "critical reading."
  • In another city, 8th graders are studying a social studies chapter on colonialism. The teacher wants to give them an assignment that will build their reading comprehension and vocabulary based on new terms used in this chapter. She does not ask them to write their own definitions. Rather, students are asked to copy the definitions for the 12 words from the chapter's glossary. These 13- and 14-year-olds are then required to draw a picture for each word. The list includes "deism" and "smuggling."

In both cases, the 4th and 8th grade students will be facing new state assessments that decide whether or not they will go on to the next levels. These assessments will ask students at both grade levels to write one or more well-crafted pages on a single topic. Urban students will be scored against the same standards as their suburban peers who have been routinely asked to write thoughtful responses of increasing length and sophistication from the time they entered elementary school. Obviously, the students who receive assignments like the above as their staple will not have the preparation to do well.

At the high school level, assignments in urban schools differ little in scope or challenge from those given much younger students.

  • Eleventh graders in an urban social studies class were assigned a "major project" about a famous person of their choice. Each student was supposed to spend an entire month studying one historical figure in depth. So far, so good. Yet the culminating task, intended to show the results of the student's monthlong study, was this: "Photocopy a picture of the person you selected and glue it in the center of a poster board. Then, decorate the poster board. When you are finished, write one or two sentences in each of the four corners summarizing what you have learned about the historical figure." The poster was the final grade for this five-week unit. Students who turned one in got an A or B. A typical project consisted of a picture and five disconnected sentences.

Unfortunately, the educators who gave these assignments often do not recognize that they are setting low expectations for their students. One reason is that urban schools, like the communities they serve, are isolated. Their teachers have few or no opportunities to talk with their peers or pursue avenues vital to professional growth. Some teachers do not even know what students are capable of doing in the subject they are assigned to teach. In high-poverty schools, up to 30 percent of teachers are not teaching in their fields. In high school mathematics, a whopping 40 percent lack even a math minor. The sad result is that poor and minority students are far less likely than more advantaged students to have instructors teaching in a subject they know deeply.

Schools would be far better off ensuring that every activity challenges students and guides them toward achieving mastery of core academic content and skills.

We see low-level assignments in suburban schools, too. But unlike the students in those schools, poor and minority students have a steady, unrelenting diet of mind-numbing assignments in all subject areas. Moreover, many have no other resources in their lives to make up for the sheer boredom of these classroom lessons. Overall, poor and minority students are being intellectually starved.

Looked at collectively, the "undernourished" assignments routinely given in high-poverty schools share certain characteristics:

  • Grades are based on process, not product: If you color neatly or turn in a paper neatly produced on a computer, you will get an A or B--with little consideration for how your work addresses the content.
  • Assignments rarely ask for research and its accompanying documentation and citation. Occasionally, we see bibliographies, but these works are not embedded into the paper. Many of the student papers contain whole paragraphs copied from encyclopedias and other reference books without attribution.
  • High school students are routinely given babyish assignments. They are asked to write fairy tales or reflect on their "shady and sunny sides." They keep volumes of journals that have no explicit purpose beyond documenting "personal learning discoveries," and consequently have nothing in them to show any academic growth. In math, teenagers do pages of arithmetic and short, unrelated "story" problems just as they did in elementary school with only slight variations. Rarely, if ever, do math assignments call for real-world analysis or application.
  • Topics for assignments are shallow and do not require complex thinking. Reading material is limited to textbooks or mediocre and "cute" writing like the pizza poem. Writing topics require only reiteration or description; opinion without supporting evidence typically passes for analysis and independent thinking. Science is just one worksheet after another, although the science fair seems to make it all OK.

Admittedly, such accounts of school life are disheartening. But there is hope. The teachers that we work with in the Education Trust's partner cities, as well as in an increasing number of other urban districts, are beginning to use district, state, or national standards as reference points for improving their assignments. Through these tools, they are learning to connect their classroom activities directly to the content and skills all American students need to master. At the same time, these teachers are clearly articulating to their students what is expected of them academically, which demystifies for students what school is all about. Not surprisingly, these teachers and schools are getting better results, and their students come to school wanting to learn.

The Oakland school board has now revised its position on ebonics. The new statement acknowledges that extending official recognition to ebonics will not in itself get African-American children where they need to be academically. But neither will handing them a voucher, a uniform, or a seat in a charter school, as other urban districts have proposed. Schools would be far better off ensuring that every activity in every classroom challenges students and guides them toward achieving mastery of core academic content and skills. The best way to do this is by making every assignment worth doing.


Eleanor Dougherty and Patte Barth are senior associates at the Education Trust in Washington.

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