Intensive intervention: strategy for closing the achievement gap


Those promoting intensive intervention to close the achievement gap point out that children born into poor homes start with a disadvantage that requires early and decisive action to overcome. Richard Chase, a researcher for the Wilder Foundation, says that 15 to 20 percent of babies in Minnesota live in impoverished homes, with some populations affected more than others: 60 percent of American Indian babies live in poverty, 42 percent of African American babies, 33 percent of Hispanic/Latino, 10 percent of Asian, and 8 percent of white babies.

Besides developing and adopting new practices, proponents of intensive intervention call for changing how achievement is thought and talked about. Chase argues that instead of talking about how to “close the achievement gap,” the focus should be on how to prevent it. Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium, prefers to talk about a “college readiness gap.” Keith Hardy, a St. Paul school board member, calls “achievement gap” a “cop-out term.” According to him, what we really have is an “equity gap of expectations.” We don’t expect certain students to achieve, so they don’t. The term “achievement gap” blames those on the lower end, instead of focusing on fixing the system that those young people are a part of—a system that only helps some achieve.

Advocates say that intensive intervention must begin in the earliest stages of every child’s life, first with prenatal care and access to high-quality early childhood education programs. Once in school, all students must have high expectations placed on them, exposure to a rich and rigorous curriculum, more time on task through longer school days and an extended school year, excellent instruction and guidance, access to tutoring, and the motivation to set their sights on college.

Caryn Mohr, of the Wilder Foundation, says that Wilder’s research shows the benefits of intentional intervention. For example, a long-term study of a rigorous prekindergarten program that serves mostly low-income and minority students, found that students participating in the program demonstrate an initial boost over their peers when they begin kindergarten. Other research shows how important it is to entertain “extending the school day or reconfiguring the classroom layout to create an environment conducive to learning.” Still other studies, Mohr says, illustrate the value of pre-college outreach programs for improving college access for underrepresented groups.

Early Childhood Education

Former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, now with the Achievement Gap Committee, says that, “Children who arrive at school from a home culture supportive of education, and/or have had a quality preschool program, are more likely to succeed in school.” Keith Hardy agrees, saying, “Giving children the tools and a love of learning early in life are both essential.” According to Education Minnesota, “Numerous studies, including The Abecedarian Project and the Perry Preschool Project, have shown the long-range benefits of high-quality early childhood education and development.”

Megan Gunnar, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, reports that brain research explains some of the ways that poverty impacts brain development and school preparedness. “Parents worried about their child’s next meal may not have the energy to encourage a child’s learning and curiosity,” she says. A child born into a poor family is less likely to be in the hands of a caring, responsive caregiver, be raised in a language-rich environment, or have sufficient opportunities to safely explore.

Knowing how critical early childhood education is for future cognitive development — as well as social and emotional well-being — Kent Pekel says that focusing efforts in that area is a “slam-dunk.” Others note that investment in early childhood education makes economic sense, too. Education Minnesota cites findings by economist Art Rolnick, former research director at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, who has calculated a double-digit inflation-adjusted rate of return on investments in such programs. In other words, it’s more cost-effective to teach children earlier in life, than to try to catch up or make corrections later.

Exposure to Highly Qualified Teachers

A major reason for persistent education gaps, observes Kent Pekel, is that students of color and those coming from low-income homes tend to be taught by less qualified teachers, while high-performing students from higher-income homes are given the most experienced, talented teachers. This, he says, is the opposite of Finland, where the best teachers are assigned to students with the greatest needs. Author Linda Darling-Hammond writes that the system implemented in Finland is based on equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. By contrast, “the United States has been imposing more external testing…while creating more inequitable conditions in local schools.”

In Pekel’s view, another “slam dunk” for closing the achievement gap is improving the instructional effectiveness of teachers and providing more rigorous curriculum for students in all schools. As things currently stand, some children are given tools to form a serious understanding of what they are learning, while others are only taught rudimentary steps. So, for example, some students—those on the “wrong side” of the gap—are given basic instructions on how to do a math procedure, while their counterparts—those on the “right side”—are taught to understand the higher concepts involved. Pekel says that all students must be exposed to a rich curriculum, and that exposure must begin in the early grades to enhance a student’s chances of succeeding later.

Dr. David Heistad, Executive Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment for the Minneapolis Public Schools, concurs that instructional effectiveness has a “huge impact.” However, he says, it can help students catch up later if provided consistently and for a sufficient period of time. Heistad praises a Bush Foundation program that’s investing $40 million in recruiting and coaching a diverse pool of teachers, who are learning from elementary schools in Minneapolis that have “beat the odds” through staff development.

More Classroom Time and Tutoring

Extra time on subjects is one of the key elements of intentional intervention, says Keith Hardy. This includes seeking out tutors for high school students to ensure that they’re up to speed, prepared to make it through college. Researcher Mohr says that Wilder’s studies show that, “individual tutoring that supplements the regular curriculum, either during school or outside of regular school hours, can boost student achievement.” So can targeted instruction, particularly around reading, she says.

Others argue that longer school days and years are needed. Don Fraser told the Daily Planet that: “Careful research has shown that more time on task for the children means they learn more. A very interesting study in Baltimore concluded that two-thirds of the achievement gap was attributable to the fact that (students) were out of school during the summer time….The efforts that are being made now to create schools to do better by these children almost all use longer days and have longer school years.”

Locally, Hardy cites Concordia Creative Learning Academy in St. Paul for its decision to go to longer days and school on Saturday—what amounts to 12 to 14 extra weeks of school per year. Afterschool enrichment and student and family support services can also help enhance or sustain achievement gains for students, according to Wilder’s research.

College Readiness

Even more important than graduating from high school, says Hardy, is seeing that students go on to graduate from college with degrees that will open doors to employment in a good profession. Hardy is especially impressed by programs like AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), which is widely used in St. Paul Public Schools from elementary grades through high school, and reaches students in the “academic middle,” helping them become higher learners.

Hardy likes that AVID works with students on note-taking, organizational skills, and respectful interactions with teachers and classmates. AVID also boosts teachers’ expectations of their students. The end result, he says, is that more students end up receiving high school diplomas and putting together successful applications to top-notch universities, with four-year degree programs.

Other Parts of the Equation

Social and Cultural Shifts

Advocates of intensive intervention emphasize the need for larger social and cultural shifts. Hardy supports efforts like Network for the Development of Children of African Descent. NDCAD, he says, empowers African Americans by connecting them with their African roots, and placing an emphasis on excelling in their academic pursuits. Pekel observes those same elements—instilling cultural pride, emphasizing student success, and giving kids something to aspire to—are present in successful, “beating the odds” schools. He adds that what is needed now, for change to be more widespread, “is a social movement, like the Civil Right Movement, that really taps into the social consciousness.”

Parent and Student Responsibilities

Hardy describes how his parents, who dropped out before graduating from high school, insisted that he and his sister not follow suit. He stresses the importance of all children having a similar level of support from parents or guardians, and applauds Parent Academy, a program of the St. Paul School system, for empowering adults to encourage their children to pursue formal education. Hardy explains that the Academy instructs parents on how to talk with teachers, and help their kids with homework, even when they don’t know the subjects themselves. He’s encouraged by the growing numbers of parents who participate each year. The program is offered in five languages, English, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, and Karen.

Personal responsibility on the part of students is also key, says Hardy. “We adults can do everything we possibly can to put the right things in place for students to achieve success, but students need to take charge.” This means learning how to push back against attitudes popular among peers, especially those suggesting that learning’s not cool, and that stigmatize doing well in school. It’s also a problem, he says, “if, in a child’s home life, they’re in contact with adults who aren’t encouraging their education.” In those cases, Hardy says, students need to “step up and be responsible.”

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.