Education Opinion

The gap within the gap

By Jessica Shyu — March 26, 2009 3 min read
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My younger brother never visited me in New Mexico, but he had a loyal following of middle school boys on the Navajo Nation. I may have been the one crafting creative lesson plans and cutting out manipulatives late into the night, and I may have been the one who helped them grow by two reading levels, but “Daniel” was the one who they looked up to.

Daniel just so happens to be a martial arts superstar, but that was only part of the reason why my boys asked me each week about my then-20-year-old brother. He was who they could relate to. In a teacher’s desperate attempt to gain control when working with one of my most challenging students in second-year of teaching, I shared my brother’s story. Daniel was never a fan of school and struggled miserably at it for most/all of his life. He failed/nearly failed a few (a lot) of classes in middle school. He didn’t have a lot of friends and always got in trouble at home. And he was always compared to his goody-two-shoes big sister. Always.

But in 10th grade, as he was failing class after class, Daniel discovered an interest in martial arts and pursued it. He realized that when he worked hard at something, he did well. He earned praise. He worked harder. And over a few months, he started transferring that mindset over to his school work. By the end of the year, he had worked so hard and took advantage of all the interventions offered to him by the school, he dramatically raised his grades. He graduated high school (it was still a rocky road) and went on to a community college. Then he transferred to a four-year university.

As my student, “Corey” listened, he grew more interested in my brother and peppered me with questions about what Daniel went through. At the end, Corey felt better and got back to work.

I, however, wasn’t feeling much better. It hit me in the gut, as it has so many times throughout my work in education, that Daniel’s story is what often happens to those of privilege and those with resources. Corey’s story does not start with privilege and resource.

There were intervention programs at school, teachers who taught well, and counselors with small-enough caseloads to create homework lunches. My parents took time from work to volunteer at school, read with him every night, paid thousands of dollars for academic enrichment programs, and dragged him through homework night after night.

Corey had a family who loved him, but who wasn’t always there, and he had whatever was offered at school, which oftentimes was not much. Pair that with a disability, and you have a 6th grader reading at the 2nd grade level and doing math at the kindergarten level. Daniel may have struggled to read, but it was never a question whether he’d pass the 5th grade text.

Whenever I explain what we do as special educators in Teach For America, I explain that we are working to close the gap within the achievement gap. It is sobering to know that if my brother attended my school in New Mexico, he would have been in special education by the time he got to my 6th grade class and would probably not be where he is right now-- studying for an upcoming accounting exam, hanging out with friends at the university and planning to teach English this summer in Taiwan.

Similarly sobering is knowing deep down that if the 40-some students I taught over two years-- the same kids who learned so ridiculously much in our short time together-- had attended the same high-performing public schools Daniel and I went to, the vast majority of them would not require special education services. Virtually no one would be labeled SPED for life. No one would have to discretely duck into resource classrooms. They would all be reading near grade level.

The good news in all this? We can fix schools. And by fixing schools, we can give Corey pretty much the same opportunities Daniel had.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.