Sunday, July 14, 2013

Slaying the Learning Gap and Effects of Socio-Economic Status in American Education

Slaying the Learning Gap and Effects of Socio-Economic Status in American Education

Corbin Campbell
2013 (from research conducted Oct. 2011)
The learning gap has infiltrated the minds of American educators and parents, making everyone wonder why there’s a gap at all, and what it means. I address this issue in a previous post. In this article, I suggest some possible solutions as indicated by research I’ve reviewed. It’s entirely possible that conflicting research exists, as well.

There is a noteworthy plethora of learning initiatives and research innovations being tested to better understand the process of learning. Such a wide range of approaches is not likely to occur in many countries in the world, and is a welcome perspective for developing curricular and educational policy. Perhaps someday this approach will arrive at a ‘best for every student’ solution (perhaps a soon-to-be outdated mode of thinking is that what works for students in one place doesn’t work everywhere). In the meantime, there are a few critical studies that I will review here for everyone’s benefit.

There are two ideas in particular that may alleviate and address the learning gap. These are Year Round Education (hereafter YRE) and Extended Learning Time (hereafter ELT). Used together, these ideas may significantly reduce the creation of and existence of a learning gap.

Although it’s unlikely that the learning gap can be eliminated entirely due to Socio-Economic Status (hereafter SES), it is probable that the effects of SES can be significantly reduced.

In order to spare you from reading this entire article (unless it interests you), I’ll summarize my conclusions from the research here: The first two years of formal education for children should be conducted with YRE in place and the next three years using ELT. This will significantly reduce the learning gap, achieving better equity, morale, and education for nearly all students.

The Mass 2020 Research Digest: Effects of Extended Learning Opportunities indicates that effects of SES can be diminished through YRE. Additionally, the Evaluation of ELT noted below suggests that ELT could effectively maintain and expand gains made through use of YRE for the first two years followed by ELT through 5th grade.

Another issue to consider is how children feel about these programs. Children in well-implemented YRE programs are likely to have better attitudes toward school (Mass 2020 R.D. Effects of ELO's). Similarly, about two thirds of elementary school children in ELT programs felt positive about the program (until middle school which was only 35% positive, which is why I suggest ending ELT with the 5th grade) (Evaluation... Year One Report).

Cost of YRE and ELT programs are somewhat higher than traditional programs. However, if these only need to be implemented between kindergarten and 5th grade, perhaps costs will be justified through the long term effects of instituting such a program.

Although the learning gap between upper SES and lower SES could be eliminated by keeping upper SES children on traditional school schedules and putting lower SES students on YRE school schedules, we can't in good conscience do so. Children must receive an equal amount of time in school, regardless of the learning gap, in order to cover the same content for all students. Although remedial summer classes can be effective, it is unfair to expect children to have to attend due to a factor that is beyond their control.

This article is a work in progress and the following section simply consists of notes to be expanded upon. Feel free to read my notes, since if you are interested in the subject you may wish to consult these reports, initiatives, etc. before I get around to expanding on them.

Important research relating to the learning gap:

Massachusetts 2020 (hereafter Mass 2020) nonprofit foundation:

A research report from Massachusetts 2020 RESEARCH DIGEST: Effects of Extended Learning Opportunities (which I may have retrieved from: produced by the Massachusetts 2020 nonprofit foundation demonstrates one of these elements.

Mass 2020 – Research Digest: The Effects of Longer Classes on Learning (suggests block schedules are more effective in high school, although effectiveness at the junior high level may need research)

Massachusetts Department of Education funded the ELT Planning and Early Implementation Grant program:
Evaluation of the Expanded Learning Time Initiative: Year One Report, 2006-2007 (Executive Summary prepared by Abt Associates Inc.)

Notes: There are some other interesting studies that may indicate additional ways to reduce or eliminate the learning gap:

High Scope from the 1960’s (needs research focused on how it impacted the learning gap)

Read Naturally from 1991 and further work on the DIBELS assessment (improves fluency, reading skills, and pronunciation)

Reading Recovery (a cost effective extended learning time program focused on alphabetics, comprehension, general reading skills, and fluency with excellent results in that it recovered 75% of students to grade level and the other 25% maintained the ‘gap’ instead of losing ground)

Contemplative Pedagogy (an educational philosophy/system with similarities to the Montessori Method)

Early Reading First (a program giving 3-4 year olds 36 books per year, which is an excellent idea)

Evergreen (which has the good ideas of thematic groups and narrative evaluation)

Finnish (excellent teacher quality and preparation due to research-based teacher training as well as connecting science and education)

National Forum midgrades (has valid points on retaining students and bridging from elementary to high school and may have eliminated 50% of the learning gap, which may indicate a good way to help the students who will not benefit from eliminating what causes the learning gap)

Zoophonics (which may be good for the visual aspect of learning phonics, but otherwise of limited scope)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

More Learning Gap

There is another possible cause for the learning gap, which is that class time for younger students significantly exceeds their patience and attention span. Optimizing class time so that it feels more like play than work is critical to keeping students involved in learning activities.

It is very easy for teachers to lose students' attention, which has been more than adequately demonstrated by various studies. In classes that are geared for 'average' students, above and below average students are often stuck twiddling their thumbs while waiting for the next assignment or teacher assistance.

It may even be argued that these above and below average students become experts in twiddling their thumbs, so that at some point 'below average' students are constantly demanding and receiving teacher time and attention while 'above average' students get a pat on the back and bother their peers (until they get in trouble).

It is important to pair above average students with below average students, so that peers can help each other. However, this has to be done carefully, so that above average students are helping teach below average students how to do the work rather than doing it for them and simply giving the answers.

Many students find it is most expedient and requires minimal work to simply give the answers to their peers (as well as to receive answers from their peers), which is why this method predominates in most schools worldwide. This practice is never effective for any student in education and simply promotes an industrialized production of completed work completely ignorant of the effort and thinking necessary to achieve the completed work.

Unfortunately, since this practice is widespread and easy for students, it is nearly impossible to eradicate unless we stress the importance of the process rather than solely the completed, correct response. This is why grading of student work must be balanced between the process and the result.

Note that students automatically default to this behavior since it is, quite simply, the easiest way for them to complete the work and start playing, reading, or doing something else fun than actually doing the work. Conversely, schoolwork that is inherently fun is not usually rushed.