Oxford’s achievement gap: What now?

Published 11:49 am Wednesday, October 5, 2016

By James M. Thomas (JT)


jamesthomasLast week’s events surrounding a proposed plan for creating a separate school for Oxford’s low-income children raised several questions for our community.

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Most notably, where do we go from here?

Without a doubt, our school district must respond to its persistent achievement gap. Yet, I want to suggest our school district leaders would benefit significantly by shifting their focus outside of the schools, toward ‘non-school’ factors as the drivers of persistent inequalities.

But why? Isn’t the achievement gap the result of unequal schooling environments, differences between effective and ineffective teachers, or uneven distribution of resources between schools?

In other school districts, where students may attend racially and socio-economically segregated schools, where less effective teachers are often concentrated in high minority/high poverty schools, and where multiple school districts and schools compete for limited resources, then perhaps yes.

But Oxford is not like other school districts. Oxford’s children all attend the same schools, school resources are relatively evenly distributed across classrooms, and differences in classroom instruction are less pronounced. Focusing our efforts inside of our schools, then, doesn’t seem like the best approach, yet it has been the most common.

So where should we focus? Current research on the root causes of the achievement gap is clear: these gaps form prior to kindergarten; these gaps grow faster when school is out versus when school is in; and socioeconomic achievement gaps are more a product of factors outside of schools rather than within.

For several decades now, researchers have concluded that from birth to five years old constitutes the most formative period for human development. During this period, children are dramatically and cumulatively shaped by their environments and experiences. Poorer children are much more likely to be exposed to certain conditions, like stress, financial and housing instability, and limited access to healthy foods, among many others, that negatively impact their development.

Likewise, poorer families are less able to compensate for the effects of these experiences. As a result, gaps in skills critical for learning become significant before children even enter kindergarten.

If we know that the learning process starts at birth, then early childhood should be a primary focus. As a school district and community, we can continue to strengthen our Excel By 5 early childhood initiative, continue to expand pre-K for all children, and provide more public resources to poorer children and their families.

What about children already in school?

Current research clearly shows that all children learn more during the school year than during the summer. Yet, poorer children benefit more than their peers from being in school, as they lose less ground to their peers during the school year.

During the summer, however, poorer children are less likely to have the opportunities for educational enrichment of their more affluent peers.

Schools are perhaps the most stable environments children, including poor children, encounter. Simply extending the school year, without making any significant changes to the schools themselves, would likely improve all of our children’s learning outcomes, but would benefit poorer children the most by extending the period of time they are in school and losing less ground.

Finally, if our school district wants a model for how to make ‘non-school’ factors part of its focus for improving school outcomes, I suggest it turn to examples where schools and their communities take an ecological and collaborative approach to their children’s education.

All children need good food and quality health care to learn. Parents require the education and skills necessary to earn a living wage, so they can provide stable homes for learning to take place.

Teachers familiar with, and reflective of, our children’s racial and socio-economic diversity are also necessary to promote learning.

Oxford has the collective knowledge and ability to leverage our existing resources and direct them toward our families and children who need them most.

The question is, do we have the will?     

James m. THOMAS (JT) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi.