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Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Why We Fail to Address the Achievement Gap

By Paul Reville — July 07, 2015 4 min read

It’s a typical night: My wife gets off the phone, having just talked with a neighbor about helping her son find a summer job in the major medical center where she works. I’m on my computer writing a college-recommendation letter for the daughter of some other friends. I interrupt to ask my wife to call a doctor acquaintance to get some advice for my daughter, who’s suffering from a relatively minor medical problem.

After that, we have dinner, during which we discuss how to help another young friend, a recent college graduate, either find a job or gain admission to a local graduate school program. Before we go to bed, we go online to order some accessories for my daughter’s horseback-riding program. We review her summer-camp schedule to make sure all her open weeks are filled with camp, vacation, or horseback riding.

This is social capital at work, and in the cases described above, the benefits of this working capital are typically and regularly accruing to other advantaged youngsters who, like my daughter, profit not only from the assets of affluence (camp, lessons, summer travel, and so forth), but from the contacts and influence of their parents and their parents’ friends. As is the case with financial capital, the rich get richer. If we were providing such services to disadvantaged youngsters, we would dub this activity “wraparound services.” It would be thought of as “an extra,” not an essential part of a child’s education or development.

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However, this kind of constant attention and support for children is what enables the upper classes to consistently advantage their children in the competition for school and college success, good jobs, and wealth. We know how to get kids college- and career-ready.

The upper classes have long known how to replicate success and thereby reinforce the existing social order. We provide our children with wraparound services and support from the prenatal period often until they are well into their 30s. And for the most part, this works. They become successful.

With poor kids, we apparently figure we can save a lot of money by taking shortcuts, poverty bypasses to success. Who are we kidding? Give them two years of Head Start, and hope the effect persists for a lifetime. Find them a top-performing charter school, send them there for four years, hoping that this intervention is enough to prepare them for success in all the subsequent years of their education. In their seven years of elementary school, give them a scholarship to summer camp for just one summer.

Not surprisingly, this “inoculation theory” of child rearing isn’t that successful, even though there are always a few individuals who defy the odds. The effects of caring attention, enrichment, health and mental-health care, and informed guidance will persist if this care and support are maintained. But if not, the positive effects diminish.

With poor kids, we apparently figure we can save a lot of money by taking shortcuts, poverty bypasses to success. Who are we kidding?”

Would any of us with privilege think of providing an intensive, comprehensive education and care program for our children for two years, then neglect them for 10 years, and eventually expect them to be just fine at the end of the dozen-year period?

The answer is that it would never occur to us to try this in the first place. Why do we think it will work for other people’s kids, but not ours? Without the services and supports that enable young people to come to school ready to learn, poor children are a lot less likely to be successful. We know this. It’s in the data. Yet, we persist in convenient, strategic illusions.

For example, we school reformers insist that all we need to do to improve children’s learning is strengthen schools in performing their traditional instructional roles. Of course, school reform, strengthening teaching and learning, is necessary, but it will not be sufficient—as 22 years of education reform in Massachusetts (and elsewhere) has shown—in closing deep, persistent achievement gaps associated with poverty. While we have made some admirable progress, we are moving way too slowly to achieve our original school reform goal of “all means all"—all children ready for success.

And even if optimized schools alone were the answer, they wouldn’t be enough, as typical schools consume only about 20 percent of a child’s waking hours between kindergarten and high school graduation. This leaves the remaining 80 percent of their lives, in which the reality is vastly unequal access to support and learning opportunities. This access maters. We know this from research that regularly documents “summer learning loss” for those who are deprived of constructive, stimulating summer activity.

Year after year, the effects add up. And this cumulative process starts in early childhood.

To close persistent gaps, a comprehensive system of child and youth development and education will be needed. All children will need social capital and basic health and mental-health support. All children will need early-childhood education and access to after-school and summer-enrichment activities. All children will need consistent support and guidance as they face the challenges of learning in school, succeeding in college, and finding meaningful, remunerative work. Schools, as currently constituted, are not set up to do all this work, but those of us who enjoy privilege know that this is what it takes for our children to succeed.

So if we are determined to see all children succeed, we will have to build systems of support and enrichment that allow all our children to thrive. It won’t be easy or cheap, but if we want a thriving economy and an informed citizenry, we have no choice but to invent 21st-century systems of education and child development that finish the job of preparing all our children to be successful.

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as The Illusion of Closing the Achievement Gap

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