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  • by Blaine Helwig

It’s the Gaps, Stupid! – Part 1

The famous American political phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” is attributed to James Carville and coined during Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign. It simplifies all the complicated aspects of a presidential campaign down to an omnipresent and timeless political issue – the economy. Of course, American voters are a diverse crowd, and they may align on different social, religious and political positions, but if the economy is not doing well, there is a high historical probability that a majority of voters focus on their pocketbooks at the ballot box.

“It’s the gaps, stupid!”

This analogous Carville expression should be a famous public education adage in deference to Title 1 social and academic public school reformation since it is the root of chronic poor performance and cycled poverty in this country. That last sentence is a bold statement, and unfortunately, for the sake of impoverished children’s educational and economic futures, it is an existential truth. Recognition and an understanding that academic gaps play so pivotal a role in educational equity is essential, but equally paramount is the following – academic numeracy and literacy gaps that adversely affect children of poverty are correctable. Simply put, “If the academic gaps are closed, the realization of educational equity is almost a certainity.” The disparate performance each year on standardized assessments between the low and high-income public schools is nothing more than the magnitude of the academic literacy and numeracy gaps – rectifiable academic gaps, per se.

If the public education establishment desires a permanent remedy to the academic issues at their schools, these two blogs – P1 and P2 extol the immediate recipe to alleviate incessant Title 1 elementary school failure with evidence of sustained performance. The blogs focus on the cause of academic inequity and not its effects. All too often teachers, indiscriminately defined teacher training, poverty, funding and assessments are blamed for Title 1 performance, but these are secondary factors. These external factors have their place in the process, but to directly address them as the root cause is grasping at a solution without understanding the fundamental chronic issues of public school failure. When the rudimentary issues impeding academic equity are identified (e.g. academic gaps), isolated and directly addressed, the mass of elementary students transition to the secondary schools academically ON GRADE level, positioned for middle school success.

Academic Literacy Gap

The majority of impoverished children in this country arrive for their first day of kindergarten (or PreK) with a literacy word gap in comparison to their more affluent peers. There has been an ongoing debate for decades by education researchers on its magnitude. Some researchers believe the word gap is as high as 30 million words – meaning the exposure word disparity that children of poverty possess when entering elementary school. More recently, researchers have calculated a much lower literacy word gap. However, despite the disagreement at the magnitude of the literacy gap, it is generally not debated a literacy word gap exists for children hailing from impoverished homes – and, this fact is critical. The actual magnitude of the literacy word gap so often debated most likely varies depending on household factors, but the actual word gap is not germane. What is important is that the academic word gap is threshold – it is a salient and dominant factor in the educational literacy outcomes of economically disadvantaged children.

In short, a significant number of children of poverty do not arrive on their first day of elementary school with developmental command of an academic language. The literacy word gap that negatively affects children of poverty as well as economically disadvantaged classified English Language Learners (ELLs/ELs) is not only a threshold number, but the gap is correctable and closed if directly addressed. Classroom supplemental resources needed to eradicate the literacy gap are free downloads and require only minutes to complete each day when implemented with efficiency.

Analogously speaking, many mature, educated adults attempting to acquire a foreign language rapidly discover the paramount importance of mastery of the most fundamental vocabulary and compositional structure of the targeted language. Unlike the developmental state of many children of poverty, adult language acquisition seekers possess age, experience and the fortuitous advantage of a mastered academic native language. The adult learner consciously ascertains their mental CPU processing capacity is rapidly depleted without rudiment automaticity of basic words and vocabulary. Thus, global perspective and fundamental mastery is not attainable without a refocusing on the proficiency of the critical elements of basic vocabulary and word decoding. Regrettably, the importance of these two pedagogical elements are not a systematic and consistent focus in a vast majority of American Title 1 schools due to a seemingly inflexible, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead status quo methodologies despite decades of Title 1 elementary school performance data opining for directional change.

Academic Numeracy Gap

The numeracy gap does not originate in the same manner as the literacy gap. This academic gap widens after students arrive at school in most elementary schools, but especially in the primary grades of Title 1 schools. Two major factors are at play in Title 1 elementary schools. First, primary teachers place paramount and justifiable importance on literacy development with a lessened accountability focus on numeracy development. In effect, primary grade numeracy development with regard to state standards is frequently not pressed for student mastery. Second, campus administrators focus most of their attention on the intermediate grades due to public reporting of standardized assessment results. The lack of student monitoring and accountability leads to gaps developing in students’ numeracy competency and proficiency in basic mathematics concepts. As a result, students arrive to third grade in Title 1 elementary schools with not only their literacy issues unabated, but also with a significant numeracy gap. Consequently, third grade teachers are in the unenviable pedagogical position to teach grade level concepts with specific and dependent prior skill academic gaps that impact students in grade level learning and proficiency.

This numeracy gap occurs in both Title 1 and non-Title 1 classrooms, but in Title 1 elementary schools, the number of children with significant academic gaps is markedly higher. Incoming intermediate students struggle to connect grade level concepts due to prior grade level numeracy (and literacy) skill gaps. A developmental and analogous situation is common when freshman college students enroll in differential and integral calculus with dependent academic gaps in algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Due to prior academic gaps in their high school mathematics’ core areas, students struggle to connect to the relatively simple mathematics of fundamental college calculus. As expected, high school algebraic, geometric and/or trigonometry gaps impede both physical and mathematical understanding of high order college level mathematics’ courses.

In arithmetic or elementary school mathematics, a similar learning impediment occurs for young children but in embryonic conceptual mathematics. Fortunately, since the numeracy skill formation is not complicated at the elementary school stage of a student’s learning, an effective stop-gap supplemental numeracy program requires minutes of student engagement per day and must efficiently address both math fact mastery and process skill proficiency – with accountability. As with the literacy gap, with efficient and effective process implementations, it is viable for educators to prevent the numeracy gap from forming in the primary grades for all regular education students and many children receiving special education services – but a student’s disability may be relevant. Hence, students receiving special educational services are provided an IEP (i.e. individual education plan) to assist in specific and individual learning areas. However, both the literacy and numeracy academic gaps impeding equitable performance in this country’s most challenging public schools can be directly addressed and eliminated – eradicating inequitable chronic failure in those schools school year after school year.

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