Mind the Gap
By Jill Jenkins
During my last year of teaching before I retired, it was my pleasure to work with one of my most competent colleague to prepare our school’s accreditation. Our research brought some enlightening data about the students who fall through the achievement gap. Using data from both the Scholastic Reading Inventory Test, and the STAR test, we learned that one third of our student body read one or more years above grade level, one third read on grade level and one third were one or more years below grade level. Only a small percentage of our students did not score proficient on the state C. R. T. (Criterion Reference Test) test with about 80% scoring in the C.C.R. range (which I thought was Credence Clearwater Revival, but apparently it means far above proficient). In fact, our school out-performed almost every school in our district and every middle school in our state. So, what about that two percent who did not pass their end of the year test? Our principal decided we should focus all of our efforts on the two percent who fell through the gap. He wanted us to mind the gap. Our first question was: what contributed to their poor performance? Our research gave us more answers. We found there were three categories of poor performers: first, were the students who had been absent more than 10 days or 25% of any quarter; second, there were the students who did not speak English as their native tongue and were not yet proficient with the language, the English Language Learners; and third, there were the special education students some of who were mainstreamed and others who were enrolled in one of our two cluster units or in our resource program. How to we help these small groups without losing the growth of 98% of our student-body?
How do we improve the attendance of our not often here students? In the old days, schools could just send a truant officer to the absent student’s home and retrieve him, but with some many students home-schooled, truant officers are a thing of the past. The administrators could prosecute the parents of most blatant non-attenders, but they did not seem happy to do that. (It seems there is a lot of paperwork connected with any court case.) Somehow we need to communicate to these parents that their children need to be in school every day if they expect to do well. We need to communicate to those students that their education should be important to them, so they should insist on going to school every day. Some schools have used rewards system. One principal identifies those students and has them come to his office every morning and tell him good morning. Sometimes there are a surprise candy bar and other times just a warm greeting. Another principal identifies these students, meets with them regularly and if they improved their attendance, he takes them to lunch every two weeks: Lunch with the principal, what middle school student could pass on a deal like that? This might work in a school where less than one percent fall into that category, but in most inner-city school the problem of attendance is more difficult to solve.
What about the students just learning English? In my school all of these students are mainstreamed into the regular classes and only a few of them receive extra help from a study skills teacher. Granted, all of these students could be counted on one and half hands, but still they are a subgroup. For example, I had one student who was a refuge from a tribal group in Africa. The counseling staff did not know from which country he was from or which language he spoke, only that he did not speak or write English. I am not trained as an ESL teacher. I contacted the district office to ask if they had some materials I could use to help him. They couldn’t help me because his foster parents had not indicated on their paperwork that he required language services. I used my own money to buy material and at the suggestion of another teacher purchased some applications for my I-Pad to help him build a small vocabulary. When the rest of the class read Treasure Island, he worked on my I-Pad at his desk. Social Services moved him to a new foster home before we took the C.R.T. test. He could write his name and he knew his alphabet and probably 100 words in English, but he was not ready to take his exam. Teachers need the support of the school, the district, and the administrators if they have any hope of improving the education of students who are learning English. Teachers need training, materials and class time to work one-on-one with these students.
What about the students in special education? In our school we have two clusters: High Functioning Autism and Life Skills Cluster and three resource teachers. Students in the Life Skills Cluster remain with their teacher for most of their academic classes, but may take one or two electives. The students in High Functioning Autism are sometimes mainstreamed. Many students who qualify for resource are mainstreamed and some only take one class with a resource teacher and are mainstreamed for the rest of the day. The resource teachers and High Functioning Autism teacher offer support and advice to the rest of the faculty. For most of these students concentrating long enough to complete a C.R.T. exam is difficult. For many of them acquiring the skills to pass a state exam is problematic.
The truth is all three of these groups do not do well on state exams for obvious reasons. Now, there is the Common Core Curriculum with a more rigorous S.A.G.E. test. Students who did well on the C.R.T. tests are expected to do poorly on the new test. At my school, we are preparing for the more rigorous test with a new program where for twenty-five minute twice a week students who had not mastered a specific learning goal in a class are retaught that particular skill again. This means that fifty minutes a week 98% of the student-body do enhancement or meaningless activities while the two percent relearned a specific learning goal. That means 500 minutes of instruction time is lost each quarter to 98% of the students. Another words, teachers have a more rigorous curriculum to teach, but will be losing thirty-three hours and twenty minutes of instruction time per year to re-teach the skills for two percent of the population, half of whom are absent. Nonetheless, if the school spends all of its resources to help this two percent, they may be forsaking the 98%. Wasting 500 minutes of valuable instructional time per quarter is counter-productive. Boring students with meaningless activities diminishes their desire to learn more and usually results in them entertaining themselves in inappropriate ways.
The reason “No Child Left Behind” worked well in theory but not in the real world, is there are students we can improve, but not all of them may become proficient in a single year. English Language Learners way take up to ten years to become proficient in a foreign language; special education students learn at different rate than students without learning disabilities. We do need to improve the attendance of the non-attender; we do need to find more effective ways to meet the needs of the English Language Learners and the special education students; however, the truth is we may not be effective with every student. A better approach to solving the problems left in the learning gap is to look at the data from the new S.A.G.E. test when it becomes available (September or October), and improve instruction on the skills that students had difficulty with. Ask the right questions: why did they performing poorly and why is this student missing so much school? Perhaps it is a problem that is easy to fix. Don’t forget to mind the gap.