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Socioeconomic Gap Key to Closing Achievement Gap

March 09, 2011 By Jim Meffert, Minnesota 2020 Contributor

Minnesota’s achievement gap is an inexcusable embarrassment to each of us. But it stretches far beyond the classroom, and despite what some policymakers say, alternative teacher licensure alone isn’t the answer.

The achievement gap is deeply rooted in socioeconomic obstacles that we need to address in order to tackle the real causes for the achievement gap. Failing to adequately address that reality only makes a teacher’s job more difficult.

The reality is a child who is sick, tired, hungry and scared is not ready to learn. A child whose parents are not able proved or don’t have the tools to create an environment of high expectations is not ready to learn. A child who is moving from classroom to classroom is inevitably behind. Think of how each of us need time to catch up when starting a new job.

Recently Education Week cited the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study:

“The average cognitive score of pre-kindergarten children in the highest socioeconomic bracket was significantly higher than the average score of students in the lowest socioeconomic bracket. The composition of these socioeconomic brackets was closely tied to race; 34 percent of black children and 29 percent of Hispanic children were in the lowest socioeconomic bracket, compared with just nine percent of white students” (Lee and Burkam, 2002).

Research has also shown that dropout rates tend to be higher for children who live in poverty. In 2000, young adults living in families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes were six times more likely than their peers from families in the top 20 percent of income distribution to drop out of high school (U.S. Department of Education, 2000c).

So what do we propose to close the gap? Alternative teacher licensure, all-day kindergarten, early childhood programs. We focus in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers close the gap? What incentives can we provide? Is there a new model for schools to do better?

Expanding early childhood education and giving teachers better tools are critical components to closing the achievement gap. But they’re only a small part of a complex set of issues. Focusing solely on the classroom allows policymakers to dump long-term socioeconomic policy shortcomings on teachers, and excuses us from addressing more deeply rooted problems.

This is what we should be hearing from policymakers: We are going to close the achievement gap by bringing the Commissioners of Health, Human Services, Economic Development and Education together with community leaders, religious leaders and leaders in the business community until they come up with a real strategy to combat poverty in places with the largest gap. We need an economic development strategy that builds stability in communities where the gap is the greatest. If we don’t, we will continue down the same path.

Economic stability for families should be the number one goal for closing the achievement gap. Giving parents tools to empower their children to succeed is the second. Next, how do we help inspire our children with high expectations both in and out of the classroom? Remember, children only spend about 17% of each year in classrooms. Yet, every minute they are awake, is an opportunity to teach. If we do that, the child entering the school building will be ready to learn. Then let’s talk about what goes on in the classroom.

These discussions are going on everywhere, in non-profit boardrooms, churches, homes, schools, and coffee shops. They should lead the public discussion surrounding the overall improvement of our educational outcomes. Not an afterthought.

In addition, using public policy forums as a tool of collaboration by bringing business, community, religious, and government leaders together to really solve problems is the kind of change in strategy many of us are looking for. Not the same old rhetoric surrounding tax rates, who pays what, how many government employees are we going to lay off, which program are we going to trim or let’s help the job creators feel better about themselves so they might feel like spending again.

It’s in our collective best interests to close the gap in society, so we can close it in the classroom.

Jim Meffert is a concerned father and long-time public policy advisor

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  • William Pappas says:

    March 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    You couldn’t have been more frank in describing how ten years of conservative economic solutions have created large increases in poverty which leads to increases in kids entering school not ready to learn.  Conservatives have found that blaming teachers for this disparity in school readiness resulting in the “achievment gap” is great cover for a deteriorating economic condition which they have so successfully created.  As more middle class families slide into poverty and conditions for lower class students continues to deteriorate the achievement gap will definitely need attention.  Following the Stillwater School Board’s decision to build an early childhood learning center would be good medicine for this problem, certainly a more intuitive response to the achievment gap than trying to reduce teacher requirements.

  • Heather Kilgore says:

    April 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Absolutely; economic security matters. Crushing poverty is just that, and nobody can be expected to perform at their best (child or adult) when they experience the stress of desperate poverty.

    A further, and in my mind, more short-term solution is giving parents information. I don’t mean the school accountability information that is intended to create market-based pressure to improve schools. The information I mean is real, clear, usable information about their child’s grade-level progress. A parent who does not understand that their child is reading two years behind grade level and as a result struggling in all other classes and may not pass the GRAD test is not motivated to make their involvement a priority. Parents who understand this information, and are given the information in a supportive way by teachers ready to work together, will make changes in their lives that support student learning. Many parents, of all socioeconomic status, simply don’t know what they don’t know.