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  • by Blaine Helwig

Academic Gaps - Each Teacher Can't Do It Alone!

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

I am not a big volleyball fan. But, throughout my life, I played a lot of different sports and activities including volleyball. Last Saturday night, I tuned in to watch the Texas’ women’s volleyball team play Louisville for the National Championship. Now, as a University of Texas graduate, I bleed orange, so I was thrilled as my alma mater won the championship 3-0 against a very talented Louisville team.

Having played volleyball many times recreationally, I know the basic rules – for example, the maximum number of substitutions per set, six players on the floor per team, net violations, the role of the libero on the court, etc.

Since there are six players on one team – three in the front court and three in the back court, I watched both coaches substitute players as shorter defensive players rotated into the front court. Thus, it became clear to even a casual observer, a team must recruit a minimum of three (3) very tall, athletic players to block and spike at the net since the backrow is generally more defensive in nature. However, I imagine a good Division 1 volleyball coach would use their 12 full-ride scholarships to recruit at least 8 to 9 quality front row blockers and spikers.

Since there are almost 500,000 high school girls playing volleyball in the United States, it appears to be relatively easy to recruit highly talented, athletic female players at the most successful college volleyball programs like Nebraska, Penn State, Stanford, Texas, etc. In reality, since most Division 1 college volleyball team rosters are limited to seventeen players, a women’s college team is nationally competitive with only 7 to 9 highly talented players. However, a college volleyball coach must only recruit 2 to 4 new players each year to replace graduating seniors; thus, identifying, recruiting and signing a small number of the most athletic high school women each spring may NOT be that arduous by top performing college teams.

Now, that brings the conversation back full circle to public education reformation.

As a retired elementary (Title 1) principal, it is a frequent occurrence to have as many as one-thousand or more children enrolled at a campus. With approximately 22 students on average in kindergarten through fourth grade in a Texas classroom, a large elementary school will employ a faculty of between 40 to 60 classroom teachers including support educators serving students receiving special education services and gifted and talented students. Besides hiring demands, a principal also faces the curriculum challenges due to the range of core subject content in an elementary school. A typical elementary school’s grade levels span from prekindergarten (PK) to fifth (5th) grade. In literacy instruction, for instance, the subject matter ranges from emergent readers in the primary grades to intermediate students (3rd – 5th grades) sitting for four (4) hour timed standardized assessments each spring in reading (and math).

The demands on improving instruction and student achievement at Title 1 campuses is a challenging task compared with middle- and high-income socioeconomic status schools. Why? On the first day that low-income students enter their prekindergartner or kindergartener Title 1 classrooms, as many as ninety percent of children are academically behind in their literacy preparedness compared to their more affluent peers. A typical elementary school experiences expected teacher attrition rates of 15 to 20 percent, so each school year a campus administrator is recruiting and replacing anywhere from 10 to 12 classroom teachers (minimum) in an average school year. Come August, the principal will be coaching and acclimating newly hired educators to their school culture as well as providing effective classroom management and school/district instructional systems. Again, it is a daunting task in system analysis to get all the new folks on the same page at the beginning of each school year on general operations. But, in the vast majority of Title 1 campuses, reoccurring, real problematic issues still persist from the previous school year: chronic academic student academic outcomes, returning educators that struggled instructionally, returning teachers with known classroom management issues, etc.

In summary, each school year, a Title 1 principal is attempting to heighten student achievement and provide equity in student learning while confronting a mass of new teachers and the same challenges that they faced the year before. It is an onerous task, and these challenges are at the majority of Title 1 schools in this country – approximately 70,000 Title 1 schools (e.g., based on 60% of Title 1 schools of the 120,000 public schools in America).

How have public education reformists attempted to raise Title 1 academic and equity issues?

Most educational reformers have endeavored to raise Title 1 student achievement by employing a methodology where each classroom teacher addresses their students’ academic issues. These methodologies have typically included school and district curricular programming initiatives as well as stocking ONE or TWO Title 1 campuses in a school district with all of the most experienced and talented educators. Honestly, those couple Title 1 elementary schools did yield appreciable student outcomes using ‘hired guns’ in these selected schools. However, it is not a replicable solution due to the massive number of Title 1 schools in any given district. Moreover, it is expensive. Experienced teachers usually must be paid a bonus or stipend to move campuses for a district initiative, and then they normally leave when the agreed upon term expires. In reality, a typical Title 1 elementary school cannot avoid hiring inexperienced and entry-level teachers. Like 'Death and Taxes,' it cannot be avoided.

Thus, training teachers to each address their students’ academic literacy and numeracy gaps is a methodology that is not realistically viable for four (4) primary reasons. First, there are too many teachers in one school to train them to fill all the children’s academic literacy and numeracy gaps, and Title 1 schools usually possess relatively high student mobility rates. Hence, new students enrolling and departing is often characterized by campus administrators as 'trying to hit a moving target.' Second, far too many Title 1 elementary schools are in need of academic assistance – the supply of experienced educators with specific skill sets are not available. Third, students not teachers possess the academic literacy and numeracy gaps. Those academic gaps are not disappearing until they are addressed. In short, training each teacher is an indirect approach to rectifying the student achievement gap. Lastly, for the last 70 years, educational reformers have never identified and isolated the equity problem and its root cause, so they have tried to solve the Title 1 achievement problem without a clear understanding on what they were attempting to solve. As a matter of fact, if nothing else was learned over the last seven (7) decades of public education reformation exercises, the empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that attempting to train EACH teacher to fix their own classroom of students' academic gaps from prior grade levels is NOT effective. It MUST be done via a systematic system where EACH child's academic numeracy gaps and literacy word gaps are addressed! In an elementary school, this is not as complicated as one may think since the children are at the beginning of their public education school years. But, if left unaddressed in elementary school, the academic gaps widen dramatically and are much more difficult to address.

Final Thoughts

A high performing volleyball team or an organization with a small number of employees can employ a successful player/teacher/employee training model to yield high performance. Small personnel numbers are ALWAYS on the side of management in relation to achieving organizational goals. The manager (i.e., the principal/coach/director/etc.) is only recruiting and training a small number of employees (i.e., teachers/athletes/employees). A volleyball coach or any other small organization can solve their training issues directly. However, when school districts employ hundreds to thousands of educators, it is not a viable strategy to use the conventional wisdom of heightening Title 1 student outcomes as has been repeatedly tried. In fact, in the author’s opinion, America’s Title 1 schools will NEVER be academically turned around to reduce equity using the failed teacher 'academic gap' training models to heighten student academics. In fact, new Title 1 campus principals soon discover it is next to impossible to replicate academic success in multiple classrooms – there are too many variables to control. Eventually, elementary principals resign their role as nothing more than a physical plant manager – making sure the lights are on, bathrooms work, children eat breakfast and lunch, and the classroom is staffed with the best teacher available for hire. Academic results? As has been the case for many decades, their campus’ academic results are consistently low and the achievement gap continues unabated.

A direct student intervention process is the only proven process to yield social and academic equity in low-income schools. Eradicating student literacy and numeracy gaps – school wide – is a simple, replicable and effective approach. Then, low-income students are on grade level as are the middle- and high-income elementary school children. More importantly, Title 1 schools are as equally manageable as non-Title 1 schools.

Then, as new teachers are hired due to retirement or resignation, the principal takes on the same 'coaching' role as the college volleyball coach and is capable of manageably training new staff on controllable pedagogical aspects and school culture. This instructional approach is pragmatic, proven, inexpensive, and it is equally viable in either zoned traditional public schools or charter schools. The reformation methodology is annotated in detail on the following website: The New 3Rs Academic Transformation.


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