The first step toward ending the achievement gap is for stakeholders to have a more honest discussion of its causes and implications, a leading urban sociologist told a NYSUT symposium.
In a lunchtime address to attendees at NYSUT's "Every Child Counts: A Symposium Dedicated to Ending the Gap," Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, said educators and policymakers needed to better appreciate how issues such as poverty, health care, social pressures and flaws in the education system are contributing to the achievement gap.
"We can't pretend we're going to compete with other wealthy nations unless we're going to do what they do," said Noguera, pointing out that other countries have been more aggressive about providing universal health care and better nutrition programs to low-income populations.
One of the issues not being adequately addressed is how special education practices are contributing to the achievement gap, Noguera said. Too many schools, Noguera claimed, are using their special education programs as dumping grounds for students who are behind academically or are English Language Learners.
"Not being taught will result in a learning disability over time -- it sure will," Noguera said. "Educators need to call it out when they see kids not being taught."
Schools also need to accept that educating high-risk students is going to take innovation and new approaches. Noguera urged schools to move away from the "cemetery method" of teaching, where students are placed in neat rows and told to keep still while a teacher talks at them.
Instead, Noguera talked about the successes of hands-on learning approaches, which get students excited about learning and help them understand relevance. He discussed a student science team from the Bronx that worked nights, weekends and 12-hour days to complete their project.
Hands-on, relevant learning helps alleviate the number-one complaint that students have about school - it's too boring.
Schools also need to better appreciate the social conditions that high-risk students face, Noguera said. Students may join gangs, for example, because of legitimate concerns about safety, and may not clearly see the path to college, because parents, relatives and peers have never had the experience.
The secret, Noguera said, is to present solutions to students that are relevant to them. You can't just tell students not to join gangs - you have to help them understand how to deal with real safety issues in their communities. You can't just instruct low-income parents to help their kids succeed - you have to show them how to do it.
Unfortunately, many of the solutions put forward by policymakers to help struggling schools have been "gimmicks" with adverse effects, Noguera said.
"Embarrassing and humiliating schools does not make them better," Noguera said, referring to the listing process created by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Noguera also said calls to make schools function more like businesses and to put business leaders in charge of the education system may make for good headlines, but ignore the fact that experienced educators are needed to lead schools through change.
"Education can break the cycle (of poverty and inequality)," Noguera said, "but only if we approach it in a different way than we do."