Learning gaps not from school, but from home
Top of the first, Jonesy was looking for a signal. Runners on first and second. A passed ball -both runners advance. Now first was open so a double play wasn’t a concern. With two on and one out, he could be looking for a squeeze bunt or be hitting for the bleachers? He got the bunt call but picked up two strikes. So it was the bleachers. Next pitch was a slider that didn’t slide. Jonesy caught it over the middle of the plate, pop up down the right field line. Sacrifice fly, one in and the other runner advances.
In a reading test one might be able to understand and fluently read all of those words. However, comprehension is the most important and most difficult of reading skills. In reading comprehension, one must be able to make sense of what is read. If the reading test questions on the above scenario are, “What is the score? Where is the base runner?” anyone familiar with baseball would know. Anyone not familiar with baseball would not have a clue.
How about a trip to the zoo story? Most middle and upper class children have been to a zoo and have had animal related reading materials. What if you’re a child in poverty who has never been to the zoo? How do you respond to questions about the long necked animal or the animal with a trunk?
The education of children living in poverty has more to it than reading practice. Reading involves phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Literacy catch-up programs provided for children who are behind in reading focus on the first four skills. Life experiences play a critical role in comprehension, a fact ignored by most federal education programs. So-called experts have suggested not wasting time on subjects not being tested. Simply focus on the first four reading skills and “learning gaps” will go away.
It is faulty thinking on several levels. For one, depriving needy students of instruction in art, music, and even recess, creates larger gaps in their learning than that in the test scores. It further limits the exposures needed to facilitate comprehension. The approach exacerbates learning gaps in areas of learning not tested. The gaps are simply hidden.
Another issue is thinking learning comes solely from schools. Young wealthier children arrive at the school house with far more knowledge than needier children - hence the genesis of learning gaps and the need for pre-school. The gaps have nothing to do with school since the children were not in school.
This differential in learning between richer and poorer continues unabated throughout the school years. Pre-school and Head Start programs have been denigrated because the learning gaps closed in those programs reappear by third grade. Of course they do. Nothing has been done to address the on-going disparity between what richer and needier students learn at home.
President George W. Bush created No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the intent of closing learning gaps. The program assumed, wrongly, learning gaps were created in our schools. Schools were “failing” if they did not close the gaps. Yet, all of the billions of dollars spent on NCLB did not close the gaps as has been validated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests students nationwide every other year. NAEP results from 2003 to 2015 showed no change in the literacy gaps. Some of the original authors of NCLB quickly determined the program would fail but the federal government persisted. The programs failed because gaps, for the most part, do not come from schools. Learning gaps come primarily from the differences in what children learn at home.
So, what is the solution? It is folly to think needy children can learn in a regular school day all more affluent children learn in school and at home. The needy children need longer school days and extended school years with programs designed to provide some of same experiences more affluent children enjoy. They need to know more so they can comprehend more. Along with more support in literacy, they need to see zoos and baseball games, plays and music programs, amusement parks and beaches.
This country, you and I, cannot afford programs which maintain people in poverty but do little to get them out. We cannot continue failed programs such as NCLB that assumed learning gaps arose from so-called “failing” schools when so much evidence pointed to living in poverty as the cause of learning gaps. We must do more to prepare young people living in poverty to support themselves. Failing to do so perpetuates the cycle of poverty. If the cycle is to be broken, it will be broken by sound, comprehensive educational programs that produce well-educated contributors to society.
Joseph H. Crowley of Cranston, who served as director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center is past president if the RI Association of School Principals.