One of Teach for America’s biggest buzzwords (buzz phrases?) is “The Achievement Gap”. When we talk about the achievement gap, we mean the educational inequity (typically measured by test scores) between affluent, often white, students and their poorer, often minority, counterparts. This gap often represents several grade levels’ worth of knowledge. There are about a thousand measures that have provided evidence that the students on one side of this divide aren’t acquiring the education they need and deserve, and I’m not about to start quoting statistics here (a quick search of the term “achievement gap” should turn up plenty). However, I have often found that these discussions fail to address one aspect of this problem: the, for lack of a better term, heredity of the achievement gap.
Here’s what I mean: one of the most important ways the gap persists it that those who don’t get an adequate education are much more likely to have children who also don’t get the education they deserve. A lot of that is tied up in some very complex issues surrounding poverty, the way education functions in this country (on a systemic and classroom level), and the informational aspect of education policy. However, the most underemphasized factor is this: students in certain situations don’t develop some of the “background” knowledge and processes that the educational system assumes they will have, so teachers end up failing to get content across because of some minor perceptual disconnect between their view of the world and that of their students.
There are many ways this plays out. When I was working with students in Chicago, it often played out in terms of vocabulary. The words I used to describe a phenomenon, or what I needed to see, didn’t resonate because I wasn’t using the same words the students were using to think about the problem. (This is one of the reasons why peer-to-peer explanations work so much better than a teacher trying to explain the same concept over and over again.)
But the problem often runs deeper than vocabulary. Here’s the story I’ve taken to telling, from my time at Institute: I was teaching a lesson on the evidence for Big Bang Theory, including red shift. This stuff is college level physics, that I covered at the end of my first year physics sequence at UChicago. And my students were completely baffled by my explanations of what red shift is, much less how it demonstrates that the universe is continually expanding. I was to the point in my desperation that I like to call “what is in the room right now?”
“What is in the room right now?” is my mental code for “I am making this way too abstract. How can I make a physical demo right now?” Luckily, I had an overhead in my room and began using it to demonstrate how a source of light moving farther away would alter how it’s perceived by the recipient (ignoring, for the moment, that in red shift the recipient is actually moving too). My students were still trying and trying but all they could think to say was “Miss, you’re going too fast! I don’t get it!”
Finally, one of my quietest students raised his hand. “Miss,” he said, clearly struggling to find the words to express what he was thinking, “are you saying light moves?” He was incredulous. I was dumbstruck.
“Yes!” I said. My classroom erupted.
It would never, in a million years, have occurred to me that my rising 9th graders hadn’t somehow intuited, on a subconscious level, that light moves. For many people, this realization occurs naturally – we talk about the rays of the sun coming down, we play with flashlights and make shadow puppets. Somewhere along the way, as adults drop hints and explain when asked, we figure out this thing that is fundamental to understanding the dual nature of light, even though it’s never explicitly taught. However, all it takes is for one generation to not be taught it, or not be taught how to explain it, and the nature of light becomes fundamentally altered in the mind of the next generation. Then, when some educator walks into the room and starts talking about applications of that nature, we end up unable to communicate effectively until someone makes the connection.
In order to teach and learn, we need our students to understand these process and knowledge that our educational system relies up, at least until we can find better, more effective ways of bridging these perceptual gaps. We need to talk more, communicate more, explain more, and do better as we do more.
And that, dear readers, is where you come in. A friend of mine, who was a staff member at Institute and was an amazing support for myself and the dozens of other teachers at our school, has put up a request on donorschoose.org for books for her kindergarten classroom. She is an amazing and powerful educator as well as a simply fantastic person, and she is doing her best to make sure that the students in her classroom develop the skills (and especially the vocabularies) they need to succeed in school. So if you have any ability to help, please visit http://www.donorschoose.org/donors/proposal.html?id=610758&verify=1705121206&challengeid=190235 and donate to make sure she is able to get the supplies she needs for this school year.