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Closing the Opportunity Gap

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

Much of what I wrote in “Closing the Achievement Gap,” issue of Just for the ASKing!, still rings true. That issue focused on ten specific practices that could potentially reduce the gap. However, a great deal has changed during the past decade and new perspectives have arisen about what should be happening in schools to decrease the discrepancy. According to Matthew Lynch, Associate Professor of Education at Langston University, “the achievement gap is a well-documented phenomenon in American schools that has been talked about, to at least some extent, for over forty years. Despite all that chatter, the achievement gap is still alive and well in American K-12 schools.” Educators fully understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to close the gap that especially impacts minorities or students who come from economically disadvantaged situations, since these children with lower achievement than their peers have the potential to become discouraged and drop out of school altogether. As Lynch further states, “The days of letting children fall by the wayside simply because of home environment or skin color are becoming things of the past as more and more educators and even some politicians vocalize the need to level the achievement playing field.” It is our moral imperative to continually revisit the topic since what we do in our classrooms today can have a profound effect on our students that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

A new twist on the “gap” has emerged in recent years. Attention has shifted from an emphasis on the achievement gap to the significance of the “opportunity” gap. The Glossary of Education Reform states, “the term opportunity gap refers to the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, and familial situations contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students.” The discussion around the discrepancy in academic progress has been further expanded through the publication of books on the topic including:

  • The Opportunity Gap: Achievement and Inequality in Education, edited by Carol DeShano da Silva, James Philip Huguley, Zenub Kakli, and Radhika Rao
  • Creating The Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap, by A. Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera
  • Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, edited by Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner

 In an Education Week blog post, California communications consultant Steve Cohen summarizes what he heard in an American Educational Research Association (AERA) session this way: “The kids who come to school with less get less from school. Closing the achievement gap with high-stakes, test-centric teaching combined with low resources, few opportunities, and a lack of support has failed. The best way is to close the mushrooming opportunity gap, create more equitable opportunities and gauge how well states and districts are doing to create those opportunities. Achievement follows from opportunities to learn.”

An Inconvenient Truth

To borrow a title from Al Gore’s book on climate change, it is important to examine the current reality related to the deficit in learning by some students in our schools. Linda Darling-Hammond, in multiple publications and presentations, provides these points for our consideration:

  • Two-thirds of minority students still attend schools that are predominantly minority, most of them located in central cities and funded well below those in neighboring suburban districts.
  • Elementary school students who have three ineffective teachers in a row score nearly fifty percentile points below students who have highly effective teachers during the same period.
  • Teacher expertise and the quality with which they deliver curriculum are interconnected since a challenging curriculum requires a highly effective teacher to deliver it; most expert teachers teach the most advantaged students while lower-achieving students receive lower quality teaching along with less demanding materials.

 Additional facts to consider include:

  • Twenty-two percent of school-age children live in poverty (Census Bureau, 2011); some critics of our “accountability-driven reform movement” argue that test scores exacerbate the widening disparity between rich and poor and the expanding opportunity gap for too many of our country’s youth.
  • In addition to deficits in learning, many children come to school with unaddressed health needs and nutritional shortages.

Potential Remedies

Advocates for addressing the opportunity gap have offered insights and suggestions we can implement to remedy the problem. Below are ten compelling points of view for educators to consider as they work to meet the needs of all students.

  • Steve Cohen in his Education Week blog post writes that at this year’s AERA annual meeting, Darling- Hammond spoke about some of the comparisons that are made between American schools and international institutions. Schools in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland tend to reach higher achievement levels than the United States. She reported that these countries “pay much more attention to the spectrum of needs that students bring to school and provide opportunities to address them, whether it’s through early childhood education, highly-trained and highly-compensated teachers, or through cheaper and better health care.” She further said, “Other countries don’t allow for the concentrated poverty in schools. We can’t ever expect to compete with these countries until we address those issues.”
  • Cohen also writes about another important point made by Darling-Hammond. She addressed the fact that a major issue that has led to the expanding opportunity gap has been the inequitable and inadequate funding that school districts within the same state receive. She gave as an example the fact that through thirty years of litigation, the state of New Jersey made a decision to close the funding gaps between well-funded and lessfunded districts and as a result, the achievement gap in their schools has been reduced by forty-six percent for students of color and more than thirty percent for children living in poverty. Other states and localities should examine their long-standing funding practices to see if changes will make for a more equitable and adequate situation for more children.
  • Lesli Maxwell, staff writer for Education Week, notes in “Fixing the ‘Opportunity Gap’ to Close the Achievement Gap” that the Obama administration has committed to spending $75 billion over the next ten years to help states provide more quality early education opportunities. Expanding early education opportunities, including more attention to health-related issues, will create brighter futures for millions of children. In fact, Steve Cohen notes that states that have already invested in preschool and other supports have seen reductions in the achievement gap.
  • In their chapter of Closing the Opportunity Gap, economists Clive Belfield and Hank Levin paint an optimistic picture. As Cohen reports, they surmise that if the opportunity gap were closed “by just one-third, it would result in $50 billion in annual fiscal savings and $200 billion in savings from a societal perspective (for example, lowering rates of crime and incarceration).”
  • A number of school districts are making a broad and rich curriculum available to more students. Additionally, they are providing more and better learning time during the school year and summer months, ending disparities created by tracking and ability grouping, and reassessing their discipline policies so that so many students are not excluded from school.
  • UCLA Professor, Co-director of the Civil Rights Project, and author of Chapter 11 in Closing the Opportunity Gap, Patricia Gandara, calls for reducing the isolation and segregation of English Language Learners by increasing immersion programs that give English speakers and English learners ample opportunities to interact in class. Research has shown that children learn from and grow to respect one another when they are exposed to learning situations in which they have sustained equal status. A further recommendation is to train more bilingual teachers and integrate them with English-speaking peers.
  • Those who advocate for closing the opportunity gap are calling for greater supports for teachers as professionals, which include quality mentoring relationships between new teachers and experienced teachers, adequate teacher compensation, improved collaboration among teacher groups, and improved relationships between teacher teams and social service providers outside of school that serve students and their families.
  • Poorer Americans are less likely to have access to or use the Internet thus reducing some students’ opportunity to understand and master computer and Internet technology. For this reason, we need to expand access to the Internet for those students. More and more school systems are putting technology in the hands of their students that will promote greater engagement in their learning, personalize learning in greater depth, promote problem solving in real-world situations, and provide students with skills they will need to compete globally after their schooling.
  • We often say that children need to arrive at school ready to learn. They will never learn at high levels if they come to school hungry and in ill health. Only when health issues, including dental and eye care as well as adequate nutrition are addressed, will we see improved school performance.
  • The best uses of test results are to provide teachers feedback on the effectiveness of their instruction and the opportunity to give growth-producing feedback to students. According to the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) of which Linda Darling-Hammond is Faculty Director, “with the implementation of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, tests have become the key to highstakes accountability policies.” As a result, far too much time has been spent preparing students for tests and thus reducing the time teachers have to focus on curricula. Decision makers at all levels should heed the recommendations of educational experts and change the focus from outputs (achievement tests) to inputs (expanded opportunities).

Proponents for tackling the inequity problem admit that the suggestions they put forth are not without costs. On the other hand, if we continue along the same path we already follow, the achievement (and opportunity) gap will continue to widen, poverty will remain a blight on our country’s productivity, and the idea of an equal education for all will just be vacant words. There are some practices which are difficult, or even impossible for schools and districts to tackle without more outside support. Nonetheless, the actions recommended here can provide the impetus to begin productive conversations that may lead to local solutions or perhaps provide arenas to influence policy makers, both local and national. We are not powerless and our voices should be heard.


Resources and References


Belfield, Clive and Hank Levin. “The Cumulative Costs of the Opportunity Gap.” In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, edited by Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Boykin, A. Wade and Pedro Noguera. Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011.

Carter, Prudence L. and Kevin G. Welner, ed. Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.
This publication is a series of essays by over fifteen scholars and reformers

Cohen, Steve. “From Closing the Achievement Gap to Closing the Opportunity Gap.” Living in Dialogue (blog). Education Week, May 3, 2013. blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2013/05/steve_ cohen_from_closing_the_a.html.
Cohen’s post addresses what he learned in a session based on Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Ever Child an Even Chance in School at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting. The session was led by the book’s editors, Kevin Welner and Prudence Carter and five of the seventeen chapter authors — Christopher Tienken, Harvey Kantor, Linda Darling-Hammond, Bob Lowe, and Patricia Gandara.

Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Inequality and School Resources: What it Will Take to Close the Opportunity Gap?” In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, edited by Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

__________ “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education.” Washington DC: Brooking Institution, Spring 1998. Accessed at www.brookings.edu/research/articles/1998/03/spring-education-darling-hammond.

DeShano da Silva, Carol, James Phillip Huguley, Zenub Kakli, and Radhika Rao. The Opportunity Gap: Achievement and Inequality in Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2007.

Gandara, Patricia. “Meeting the Needs of Language Minorities.” In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, edited by Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

__________ “Special Topic / The Latino Education Crisis” ASCD: Educational Leadership, February 2010, pp 24-30. Available at www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb10/vol67/num05/The-Latino-Education-Crisis.aspx.

How to Close the Opportunity Gap: Key Policy Recommendations: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and the National Education Policy Center. Accessed at edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/ default/files/publications/closing-opportunity-gap-what-america-must-do-give-every-child-even-chance. pdf.
“National Poverty Rate for Children.” Institute for Research on Poverty, 2011. Census Bureau information accessed at www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq6.htm.

Lynch, Matthew. “Closing the Achievement Gap: What Lies Ahead.” Education Futures: Emerging Trends and Technologies in K-12 (blog). Education Week, August 21, 2013. blogs.edweek.org/edweek/ education_futures/2013/08/closing_the_achievement_gap_what_lies_ahead.html.

Maxwell, Lesli. “Fixing the ‘Opportunity Gap’ to Close the Achievement Gap.” Politics K-12 (blog). Education Week, April 25, 2013. blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2013/04/fix_the_ opportunity_gap_to_clo.html.

Oliver, Bruce. “Closing the Achievement Gap.” Just for the ASKing!, November 2005. Accessed in the Best Practice in Instruction category of the Just for the ASKing! archives at www.justaskpublications.com/jfta.htm.

Rutherford, Paula. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2010.

The Glossary of Education Reform. Portland MA: The Great Schools Partnership and Education Writers Association. Accessed at edglossary.org.
This is a comprehensive online resource that describes widely used school-improvement terms, concepts, and strategies for journalists, parents, and community members.

Zickuhr, Kathryn and Aaron Smith. Home Broadband 2013. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, August 2013. Accessed at pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Broadband/Findings.aspx.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Closing the Opportunity Gap.” Just for the ASKing! October 2013. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2013 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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