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  • by Blaine Helwig

It’s the Gaps, Stupid! – Part 2

Small Gaps Widen to Larger Chasms

While hiking the 500-mile-long El Camino in Spain a couple of summers ago, a small pain ensued on the ball of my left foot. At first, the small injury was bearable, and I hoped the pain would subside with time. However, as the miles wore on, the foot pain increased, and I shortened my normal walking stride to lessen the increasing discomfort. After only 8 miles, my change in stride while carrying a 15-kilogram backpack caused heightened acute aching in my left knee and hip. Without direct intervention, it was not possible to continue. Initially, I had investigated the possibility of a small pebble in my shoe’s tread or with my socks. But, the usual pain suspects common in backpacking, appeared normal. I thoroughly massaged my foot, but as soon as I began walking, the intense foot pain returned. I was cognizant that the root cause was my foot, and not my knee and hip. It was abundantly clear those two areas of intermediate distress were nothing more than an extended effect of the primary problem – the ball on my foot.

I had worn a plastic, hard rubber based orthotic insert in my shoes for many years, and the specially designed insert had not only proven effective in eliminating a metatarsal problem five years prior – it seemed indestructibly constructed. However, when I fished the insert out of my shoe, I discovered a small defect in the orthotic. After years of wear, a small hole had formed directly over the pressure point on the ball of my left foot. I plugged the small gap with tissue paper folded many times over and used medical tape transversely wrapped to hold the tissue in place. After placing the orthotic carefully in the shoe, I continued my journey to Santiago de Compostela. The pain lessened, but it was still noticeably present. After several iterations I discovered the needed threshold layering of tissue paper, and I could walk with absolutely no foot discomfort. I began walking with a normal gait and the effected pain in my knee and hip vanished immediately as well. When I returned to the States, the podiatrist’s staff professionally repaired the jerry-rigged orthotics.

Of course, the preceding anecdote stresses the importance of remedying small, correctable problems (e.g. academic gaps) before manifesting themselves into larger and more complicated issues. Similarly, stop-gap supplemental academic resources lead students to grade level by filling rudimentary skill deficiencies, thus affording students to readily engage in grade level adopted curriculum. It also allows teachers to present their grade level curriculum without pervasive differentiation of dependent skills. It is important to note that all adopted curriculum is designed for a specific grade level. Adopted daily core curriculum also assumes that the students do not possess prior grade level academic skill gap deficiencies. For example, a third-grade math curriculum assumes students have mastered place value, one-digit multiples, addition and subtraction math facts and their physical understanding, whole number lines, even and odd numbers, and the list goes on. This situation is far from the classroom reality of any urban or rural Title 1 elementary school for grade level readiness in either literacy or mathematics.

Consequently, intermediate elementary teachers in Title 1 schools are placed in a difficult pedagogical position experiencing the following dilemmas.

  1. Each elementary school selects a vendor adopted core curriculum accompanied with a grade level scope and sequence based on that grade level’s state standards. However, many current grade level skills have dependent skills from prior grade levels, and frequently, those prior grade level skills were not mastered by students. In short, a smaller academic gap has widened to a larger gap affecting multiple academic elements. How can differentiated curriculum in reading, writing and mathematics accommodate the mass of literacy and numeracy skill gaps from prior grades in addition to teaching grade level standards?

  2. Another unique factor in public education with respect to most professional fields is that there is no entry-level teaching work. A first year fourth grade teacher has the exact same teaching assignment as his or her seasoned colleague teaching on the same grade level in an adjacent classroom. Thus, stop-gap resources must be so simply designed that any teacher can implement them with the equal efficacy. How can a resource be so simply designed that varying teacher levels are equally successful, and the resource directly addresses the academic gaps?

Conclusion, Filling Gaps, and When the Gaps Are Not addressed

Many educators view student learning as isolated and unique. Over the years, I have heard at least five (5) professional development presenters effectively state, ‘Children are not little adults, and they learn differently. We should not treat them the same.’

Yes. That is true. Children are not little adults. Nevertheless, they are human beings, albeit little ones, but they are still human beings – with human brains attached to their small bodies. They learn the same way big humans seem to do – only the content must be developmental and presented more concretely due to a lack of perspective and background knowledge and their age. Kids master skills (developmentally) in core subjects by tactile, pictorial and then abstract ‘paper-pencil’ application methodologies. Children apply those skills in some application activities and usually struggle at new exposure. They practice. They practice. After meaningful engagements, they improve dramatically.

In a sentence, when students or adults possess academic gaps, they have difficulty connecting to dependent concepts. It is more difficult to ‘fix’ academic issues in secondary school because a small academic gap in elementary school invariably broadens as grade levels pass by. Fortunately, this is not the case for elementary school learning. Academic literacy and numeracy gaps are in their embryonic stages and are much more easily addressed – especially in the primary grades (PK – 2). In general, these academic gaps must be addressed by the end of third grade, so adopted daily, core curriculum will work as designed for the grade level teacher. If not, Title 1 schools will continue to exhibit inequitable student outcomes and disparate economic outcomes as children of poverty mature to adulthood. Consequently, the poverty cycle will continue as it has for the last seven decades.

A normalized educator culture accepting low academic performance has evolved for the last 70 years. Title 1 schools do not academically improve from one year to the next due to ineffective language acquisition programs, an absence of phonics and phonemic awareness program implementation and neglecting direct intervention to close the literacy word gap. The numeracy gap must be closed for both the four math fact operations and process skills – beginning in the primary grades. Neither the literacy or numeracy academic gap are onerous to address at this stage of student learning in elementary schools, but there must be a structured and consistent program that ensures performance and verification of student mastery. Stop gap supplemental resources are available to accomplish both tasks, but they must be consistently monitored each week by the principal and classroom teacher. The literacy word gap can be addressed with FREE digital downloads of a 1,000-word fluency program and 800 word non-negotiable weekly programs at The numeracy gap can be effectively and efficiently closed using an inexpensive daily program called Formative Loop. As expected, both programs require consistency and daily purpose, but the time needed to implement these programs is about 10 to 15 minutes per day. However, this campus initiative must be a valued, educational priority at the campus – effort, consistency and planning are required.

IF overall academic equity is the campus or district objective, three major steps are necessary – including stop-gap resources. The ordered priority process below provides a framework to press academic equity and school reformation in rural and urban Title 1 elementary schools.

  1. Efficient and effective school-wide and classroom systems must be implemented to preserve classroom learning minutes and provide school safety. The campus administration must provide specific classroom management and efficient routine via professional development training. Administrators must also support teachers in the classroom – as needed – to afford teachers time to provide instruction without major student disruptions. These systems must establish a culture of cooperation that positions both teachers and students for success in the classroom. In doing so, students are pressed, motivated and encouraged students to heighten their attitude toward student learning. As expected, it is imperative that strong, positive relationships are soundly founded at the Title 1 elementary campus.

  2. Stop-Gap and Bridge Resource (see related blogs and white papers at New3RS website) supplemental implementation must be effectively implemented. These two supplemental resources are independent of the adopted daily curriculum at the school/district. However, any reputable vendor in reading, mathematics or science school curricula may be adopted. It is critical to note that the overriding goal of the elementary school must be on literacy development. Hence, stop-gap numeracy programs and supplemental daily bridge resources must be employed to guarantee high mathematics and science performance. Otherwise, elementary teachers will engage unstructured and expended time in numeracy/science intervention work that will be needed in reading and writing.

  3. Structured phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the primary grades. A press of accountable independent reading (school-wide) using Accelerated Reader or a similar program that can provide digital accountability of chapter books. See the New 3RS website for additional information on independent reading – classroom novel studies.

If campus administrators do not take these three basic steps at a minimum, Title 1 elementary schools evolve from academic centers toward physical plant management centers where children of poverty come to a school that offers little hope of equitable academic outcomes. In effect, Title 1 schools practice each school year with their students for 9 months, but without improvement in academic performance.

Invariably, campus and central office administrators recycle the same failed ideological approaches at the detriment of our most needy children – avoiding at all costs the root cause of their plight – the fixable academic literacy and numeracy gaps. Thus, students are unable to make logical connections in the daily core lessons due to academic gaps often resulting in unengaged students becoming distracted leading to classroom management and student disciplinary issues.

In comparison to their more affluent peers, children of poverty fall academically behind as they are not led to master skills that require dependent skill proficiency. As the academic literacy and numeracy gaps remain unaddressed, in turn, so does the achievement gap. The achievement gap remains unabated school year after school year citing the public education establishment’s failure to recognize its root cause. Public education Title 1 inequity can be resolved with academic and fine arts curricular freedoms, but solving any human related problem requires fundamental impediments be isolated and directly addressed. Until the academic gaps are rectified, enduring failure of American Title 1 schools will continue since the effects are addressed and not the source.

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