How to help disadvantaged students reach new heights

18th December 2015 at 00:00
Think local to help close the attainment gap between poor and better-off students

THE ISSUE

As a teacher working in a very diverse school district in the US, I am always talking with my colleagues about how we can go about closing the achievement gap that separates low-income and minority students from their more economically advantaged peers.

This is not just because it is the right thing for us to focus on as educators committed to helping all students succeed, but also because there is a great deal of pressure on schools to perform well on this particular measure.

Many people, including policymakers, boards of education, homebuyers and even governors will judge teachers by their ability not only to turn a poor-performing school around but also to close a school’s achievement gap.

As it is in the UK, there are many ways to do this, but in my school there are three areas that have worked particularly well.

Understand the context

Building strong family-school relationships is crucial. These relationships need to be based on a secure knowledge of the issues facing the students and their families in your catchment. We have done a lot of work at our school to understand the challenges faced by the families of our students so that we can tailor our support to meet those challenges.

We have done this by making sure that we are consistently communicating with students’ families – not just about student performance and not just in a simple classroom email.

Making time for face-to-face evening meetings so that working parents can be accommodated are essential for developing the teacher-parent relationship. Family-based activities on the weekends and in the evenings allow students, teachers and parents to interact together in socially positive environments.

The information that we have gained about the lives of our students as a result of these initiatives has been invaluable and we have been able to target our support accordingly.

Lack of money and time were both identified as key educational barriers by parents and families. Our school now holds a number of fundraising events where the money raised helps to support students who do not have the funds necessary to purchase school supplies or go on school trips.

Focus on effective recruitment

and targeted training

It is not enough to expect teachers to seek out the best techniques for closing the gap on their own. Schools need to train teachers and get them to share best practice on attainment for disadvantaged students. Doing this through targeted CPD really does hammer it home to everyone that this is a particular area that needs to be addressed. It is something that requires its own programme of study; it cannot be added in to the general mix of teaching.

Schools also need to make an effort to recruit and retain teachers of all races and ethnic backgrounds, including bilingual teachers. Schools need to reflect their community.

Freedom to be creative

Schools need a strong, structured curriculum that sets high expectations, but for the gap to be closed, teachers also need to be given the freedom to be creative. If we enable teachers to look at the data and then devise methods to address attainment, then we have the double benefit of getting teachers thinking about the issue for a specific student and also empowering them to do something about it.

Imposing solutions at a national level will mean that schools are unable to adapt to local and specific circumstances. By empowering teachers, you can achieve bespoke solutions.Classroom assessments should be used in order to determine which teaching strategies work best with specific populations of students. The best assessments are teacher-created, school-specific and iterative.

Greg McGrath is a fourth grade elementary school teacher at Charles H Bullock School in New Jersey, US

As a teacher working in a very diverse school district in the US, I am always talking with my colleagues about how we can go about how to close the achievement gap separating low-income students from their more economically advantaged peers.

This is not just because it is the right thing for us to focus on, but also because there is a great deal of pressure on schools to perform well on this particular measure.

Many people, including policymakers, boards of education, homebuyers and even governors will judge teachers by their ability to close a school’s achievement gap.

There are many ways to do this, but there are three things that work particularly well.

Understand the context

Building strong family-school relationships is crucial. These relationships need to be based on a secure knowledge of the issues that your students and their families face. We have done a lot of work at our school to understand the challenges faced by the families of our students.

We have done this by making sure that we make a real effort to communicate with students’ families.

Making time for face-to-face evening meetings so that working parents can be accommodated is essential for developing the teacher-parent relationship. Family-based activities on the weekends and in the evenings allow students, teachers and parents to interact together in socially positive environments.

The information that we have gained about the lives of our students as a result of these initiatives has been invaluable and we have been able to target our support accordingly.

Lack of money and time were both identified as key educational barriers by parents and families. Our school now holds a number of fundraising events to support students who do not have the funds necessary to purchase school supplies or go on school trips.

Focus on effective recruitment and targeted training

It is not enough to expect teachers to seek out the best techniques for closing the gap on their own. Schools need to train teachers and get them to share best practice with each other on attainment for disadvantaged students. Doing this through targeted CPD demonstrates that this is an area that needs to be addressed. It is something that requires its own programme of study; it cannot be added in to the general mix of teaching.

Schools also need to make an effort to recruit and retain teachers of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Schools need to reflect their community.

Freedom to be creative

Schools need a strong, structured curriculum that sets high expectations, but for the gap to be closed, teachers also need to be given the freedom to be creative. If we enable teachers to look at the data and then devise methods to address attainment, there is a double benefit: teachers think about it and are then empowered to do something about it.

Imposing solutions at a national level will mean that schools are unable to adapt to local and specific circumstances.

By allowing teachers to determine which strategies work best with specific populations of students, your school can achieve bespoke solutions. The best assessments are teacher-created, school-specific and iterative.

THE ISSUE

Greg McGrath is a fourth grade elementary school teacher at Charles H Bullock School in New Jersey, US

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