Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 04 2010

Causes of the achievement gap

In my end-of-year meeting with TFA, I was asked what I think the main causes of the achievement gap are. I’ve been “in the trenches” for a year, living and breathing the achievement gap every single day. I can show you the gap in a million different ways (You need your fingers to add 10+5?! You get it wrong when I ask for 6 x 0 or 8 x 1?! You don’t know how many quarters are in a whole?!) but the actual explanation for it is much more challenging. I came up with three answers, but I wish I’d had more time to think about it. Here’s my starting point:

The first thing I said was attendance. It’s shocking how many days of school some kids miss, whether because parents keep them at home to care for someone, don’t make the kid go to school if they don’t want to, or don’t know that the kid is skipping. One of my kids missed first period more than 100 times in 180 days. Another has easily missed a third of the year. If students aren’t in my classroom, I can’t teach them. We can do make-up work if they’re only absent a few times, but we’ve usually already moved on when they come back, and there comes a point when they’re just too far behind. My absent kids are often some of my lowest students, and I would guess that they were also missing material this frequently in previous grades. The farther behind they start, the more difficult it is to catch up, which causes discouragement and more absence, and leads to them falling farther behind. Vicious cycle… you get the picture.

Next, I put some of the blame for the math gap on education in lower grades. My kids are coming to me more than capable of learning 8th grade math, but missing the foundational skills and number sense to actually do the computations. It makes me worry that there is not enough emphasis on conceptual math knowledge in the lower grades, and that turns into an emergency by 8th grade. Maybe it’s happening because lower grade teachers don’t understand the math on a deep enough level themselves. (I mean really, how many people actually get why the algorithm for multi-digit multiplication works, or what’s happening when you multiply or divide fractions? I definitely never thought that all the way through until I started teaching.) Maybe it’s happening because the teachers are slammed with the achievement gap on all sides and also need to focus time and energy on other fundamental skills (like, you know, how to read). Maybe it’s just ridiculously hard to teach conceptual understanding (it’s definitely a huge challenge in middle school, and I’m always relieved I don’t teach younger kids). Regardless, I overheard an elementary school teacher saying that her kids don’t understand why a number gets smaller when multiplied by a fraction. Another teacher shrugged it off with, “yeah, that is mysterious.” WHAT?! No, it’s NOT mysterious. It makes perfect sense. Teach them why!! Otherwise, by the time they get to me, it’s still a mystery, only now it’s been compounded by years of confusion and being wrong, and now they’re terrified to even approach it. Disaster.

Before I dump all the fault on elementary school teachers, the third source of the achievement gap is actually me. It’s the fact that kids who need good teaching the most are stuck with inexperienced teachers. I could be the best first-year teacher ever (and I’m not) but would still be a first-year teacher. There’s no way to be a truly great teacher until you have experience, and my kids barely get to see that. Most of our teachers at school this year had taught for three or fewer years. We could all do everything perfectly and still not have that excellence that comes with having seen it all. I think there are good things to having young teachers, but I also think there’s no substitute for experience.
[Let me also pre-empt the common argument that teacher inexperience is somehow TFA's fault. If there were some great non-TFA teacher who was going to stay in our district and teach 8th grade math, there never would have been a job opening for me in the first place. Everyone leaves, not just TFA. As a matter of fact, the teacher retention rate in my district is actually higher for TFA than non-TFA in their first few years. People who are going to teach for the rest of their lives don't necessarily want to do that in one of the most challenging environments possible. They get their feet wet here and then move on to jobs that make them suffer less in communities where they want to raise their families. Also, because administration here is also very young, you can stay in the district but promote out of teaching very soon here. Why be in the classroom forever when you can be principal in your thirties? I don't blame them, but don't blame TFA either.]

Those are my initial thoughts. Experts spend careers on this and I’ve read plenty of those books, so clearly this could be expanded… but you don’t need to read any more in one post.

5 Responses

  1. Jeff Jordan

    I drive a fire engine in Tucson. In order to provide the firefighters, who may be inside a burning building, I must provide them with the proper amount of water pressure, figuring friction loss in the hose and other factors. This reqires formulas (2Qsquared + Q) with Q being quantity of water, and so on. There are other formulas and examples. My daughter is finishing up her first year in TFA as a freshman algeabra teacher in greater Boston. Congrats on finishing your first year and I enjoyed your reflection on why the gap. Sadly, all three reasons will be difficult to overcome, especially on a national basis. Make the changes that you can.

  2. Ms. J

    To go along with the early elementary teachers– we have to remember that with our demographic, during the earlier years, a lot of our kids are struggling. If students come here from Mexico in 3-4-5th grades, they are probably in survival mode, trying to learn how to say “I need to go to the bathroom,” and thus, not learning how to read, or to know their math facts. Some of them are in a state of such culture shock that they’re not ready to learn yet.

    On top of that– here are a few things I’ve experienced.
    1. My first year, we were, in a roundabout way, told not to bother teaching things like spelling, science or history because they were subjects that didn’t matter. They wanted us to teach reading and math all day. In a vacuum. But that doesn’t work.

    2. As a 6th grade teacher, I was told I couldn’t teach them and drill them with multiplication facts or work with them on number sense that was mental math because it was too “young” and not at grade level. I did it anyway. And still the kids struggled.

    So, this tells me two things– the way we deal with students who speak other languages when coming here is all wrong, and the way administrators and districts deal with students who are behind and lacking necessary skills…also all wrong.

    On top of that, when the kids know that they can do ANYTHING and STILL pass…what’s their incentive?

    Just some thoughts.

  3. I love you very much!

  4. Rubbish. Utter rubbish.

  5. How long have you been writing for? This article was great. Don’t suppose you’d be interested in a j.o.b. doing it for someone else? The writing I mean.

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