Let’s Stop Doing Things That Don’t Work and Really Close the Achievement Gap

By Discovery Education

We must provide all teachers with the equipment and professional development necessary to embrace the digital transformation, writes the Napa County (CA) Superintendent of Schools.

By Dr. Barbara Nemko

The year was 1965. Congress passed Title I for the purpose of ensuring that all children would have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and State academic assessments.

In today’s parlance, we would say that Congress wanted to pass a law to close the achievement gap, but that term hadn’t yet been created.

Since 1965, the United States has spent billions of dollars—approximately 16 billion annually—on remediation, intervention, school reorganizations and closings. Yet despite a price tag that now totals 848 billion dollars, the achievement gap has only slightly narrowed.

Beyond the money, we have shamed schools and teachers, narrowed the curriculum to math and reading (due to the emphasis on these two subjects on our annual state assessments), inadvertently led teachers and administrators to cheat in order to make a better showing on the tests and generally sucked the life out of school from a student (and teacher) perspective.

Although the results have been dismal, we continue to slightly tweak the above variables in our attempt to close the achievement gap. As Einstein once famously said, “To do the same things over and over again and expect different results is the definition of insanity.”

Strangely, there is a way to close the achievement gap that is right in front of us, thanks to modern technology. First, we know that children of poverty and English learners typically come to school with a 30 million word gap; that is, they have heard 30 million fewer words when they enter kindergarten than affluent children from professional families. Learning to read is a process of decoding speech that has been written down. If you decode the letters into a word you have never heard or don’t know, you can’t read. While we advise parents to “Talk, read, sing,” to their babies, many English learner families can’t read in either their native language or English. 

Fortunately, technology provides applications that can read books out loud to children, highlighting each word as it is being spoken. Parents can “read” to their child, holding the child on their lap, while the tablet does the actual reading. An app we use at the Napa County Office of Education, Footsteps2Brilliance, can toggle back and forth in English and Spanish, so the parents can listen to the story first in Spanish so they know what it’s about, and then “read” it aloud to their children. The children can listen to the same story again and again, just as the affluent child asks his parent to read and re-read a story. Even better, the tablet doesn’t get impatient on the 15th reading of the same story. And it has pictures that, when tapped, may move, dance, sing, or be silly. Try getting a regular book to do that. Results have shown statistically significant gains for preschool children who use this app compared to those who don’t. An unexpected side effect of this is that parents report that they are improving their English skills. Using this technology in Napa has enabled us to narrow the 30 million word gap so that students begin kindergarten on a more level playing field. 

Throughout the K-12 years, we know that student populations are quite diverse with regard to their native languages, as well as in reading and math levels. Telling teachers to “personalize” instruction is difficult, as each teacher may have 30 or more students, up to 150 in high school classes daily. How does a teacher determine each student’s ability in these subjects, and then tailor a lesson on their individual learning level that also appeals to their interest?

Until technology, the ability to do the aforementioned was but a distant dream. However, we now can do all of these things, as various applications can assess students on a daily basis by embedding an assessment in the instructional materials and then adjust the reading assignment to the student’s individual lexile level. Digital materials can also read in many languages; Discovery Education Techbooks, for example, can even read in Haitian Creole, in addition to the more common languages. And these Techbooks can read out loud for the student who is newly arrived and can’t read in any language. 

Additionally, because these digital materials are interactive, and have videos embedded, they are far more engaging than a traditional textbook, and far less work for a teacher, who doesn’t have to view seven videos to find the most appropriate. Another advantage is that when things change, such as Saudi Arabia opening the first movie theater in 35 years, it can be embedded into a Techbook overnight, making current events available to the student. Traditionally, students would have had to wait until the next textbook adoption, which might be six years in the future, to make note of this cultural revolution. And who wants to read a textbook that is four years behind in this era of very rapid change in all phases of life? It’s no surprise that districts who have gone all in for digital are showing amazing (or in researchers’ terms, statistically significant, gains in test scores, attendance, behavior and student engagement.) And all of this can be had for less than the price of a traditional textbook.

Why isn’t every teacher in every district in the country taking advantage of this technology?  Sometimes they don’t have adequate infrastructure. Sometimes it is just too difficult to change practice after decades of doing things one way. More often than not, there exists a lack of vision on the part of critical district stakeholders. But this should be a policy change at the highest levels. No state should allow textbooks on an adoption list any more. Would we put a rotary phone in the mix if we were updating our communications department?

We are now almost 1/5 of the way through the 21st century. It's time to stop doing the same old things, over and over again, and provide all teachers with the equipment and professional development necessary to embrace the digital transformation. Only then we can really close the achievement gap.

Dr. Barbara Nemko, is the Napa County (California) Superintendent of Schools. She began her career teaching elementary school in New York City, earned her PhD at Berkeley, worked for the University of California in educational evaluation and provided curriculum development leadership. As superintendent, she has used Discovery Education programs and others.

You can reach Barbara at @barbnemko or at bnemko@napacoe.org


Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Image via Brad Flickinger on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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