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Is Rigorous Curriculum the Key to Closing the Achievement Gap?
posted by: Melissa | October 02, 2018, 05:23 PM   

As a middle school social studies and science teacher, I felt that if I taught the material with the depth and nuance that it deserved, my students would be engaged. I wanted to give my students the opportunity to experience the curriculum, to explore it, and spend enough time thinking about it. I shied away from poster or shoe-box projects in favor of speeches, debates, and simulations. I wasn’t always successful. I sometimes struggled with how much memorization to require or how much to rely upon note-taking or participation grades, but I was able to create emotional connections for middle schoolers about the fate of Charles I and to elicit passionate debate regarding the pros and cons of nuclear power.

Given this background, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I find myself identifying with a report released by TNTP this week. In the report, TNTP found that students were, on the whole, being given work below grade-level whether or not they were capable of handling more rigorous assignments.

According to the report, The Opportunity Myth, students spent an average of more than 500 hours per year on assignments that were too easy. This lack of sufficiently rigorous assignments resulted in good grades, but often, these students were not able to meet grade-level standards. The report found that students earning Bs had a less than a 35 percent chance of meeting their state’s grade-level bar, largely because they had only been given work that was far too easy. For example, the report notes an eighth grade ELA assignment requiring the filling in of missing vowels in vocabulary words rather than practicing how to use them in an authentic context. Moreover, this tendency to teach material that was too easy, was more pronounced in majority minority schools, causing students in those schools to fall further and further behind each year, perpetuating and widening the achievement gap.

The good news is there is evidence that this can work in the reverse as well. When students were given rigorous assignments by teachers who maintained high expectations and required that they master grade appropriate assignments, students began to catch up to where they should be. First, the report found that when students were given grade-level work, they could succeed at that work more than 50 percent of the time, on average. When teachers did this on a consistent basis, providing adequate scaffolding and differentiation, low-achieving students could gain as much as seven months of learning above and beyond what would be expected for an academic school year, effectively narrowing the achievement gap.

The report makes clear it is not the teacher’s fault that many students are being given work at too low of a level. The reasons are numerous. Teachers are often overburdened and overstressed. They inherit students who are already several years behind and receive little instructional support in identifying appropriate materials or differentiating instruction to meet their students’ needs. This assumes that teachers know what students should be doing, but the report also found that teachers were often provided misinformation about the assessments and standards, which made knowing what they should be teaching and how they should be teaching it difficult.

Although teachers are not at fault for the current situation, they can be part of the solution. Teachers can keep this report in mind as they plan their instruction and strive to include more rigorous instructional strategies as well as hold their students to higher standards. Teachers can examine and challenge their own biases as they make instructional decisions. Finally, teachers can and should engage with families to create supportive partnerships that encourage students to work toward more rigorous academic success.

Teachers also have opportunities to make their voices heard on this issue. The Collaborative for Student Success is currently looking for teachers in Colorado, California, New York, and Tennessee who will speak out about high standards, high-quality assessments, strong accountability, and student equity. If this is an issue you are passionate about, consider applying for a fellowship with the Collaborative for Student Success. This fellowship encompasses a deep dive on the data surrounding these issues as well as training in how you can amplify your voice to advocate for your students. Learn more about the fellowship here.

For more detail on the results of the study, read the full TNTP’s report here.

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