Targeted Approaches to Close Gaps

Targeted Approaches to Close Gaps

Image via Seattle Times

The efficacy of intervening early and aggressively to close learning gaps for children of color and students in poverty is clear. What may not be so clear is how to intervene. What is going to offer the best chance of actually realizing the goal of improved achievement for these marginalized students?  Research that’s been around for decades offers 4 solid recommendations:

Universal High Quality PreK: Multiple studies have concluded that very early intervention can prevent negative outcomes for low-income students. Attendance at a centers-based preschool was linked to higher emerging literacy scores for advantaged and disadvantaged students alike.1  But studies also showed that students of color attend preschool at lower rates than white students2 and when they do attend, have less ability to attend high quality preschool programs.2 Many are serviced through Head Start, which is a funding source rather than a specific intervention strategy and so produces uneven results.  Attending a high-quality PreK program affords these students more opportunity to catch up to their peers. There is even some research showing that it is better to delay kindergarten enrollment in favor of attending at least one year of PreK, even if the student qualifies for kindergarten enrollment by age.1

Focus on Early Literacy: Reading is a lynchpin skill. As students move up the grades, more and more of their learning is reading-dependent. A gap in reading skills, if not addressed early, can have a negative academic impact on the rest of a student’s education.  Research shows that grade 1 reading ability is highly predictive of grade 11 reading ability3, so the very earliest years of school – PreK and Kindergarten – are a critical span for developing early literacy skills.  Explicitly teaching decoding and comprehension skills, including writing activities, and utilizing literary and informational texts to increase knowledge and vocabulary prepares children for later learning.  Ensuring that all students achieve competency in reading should be the primary focus of districts wishing to close gaps and improve performance.

Treat Everyone Like They’re gifted: A piece of research from the 1980s took students who had been passed over for the GT program using traditional identifiers and sought to identify those who were potentially gifted.  They used a battery of identifying techniques, including peer interviews: “Who tells the best stories?” “Who always knows the answers?” “Who is really good at building things?” Once they identified this group of potentially gifted kids, they spent the rest of the year treating them like they were gifted:  lots of choice, going deep on topics that interested them, a variety of ways to demonstrate learning, emphasis on critical thinking. And they offered lots support in areas where the students’ skills were still emerging, mainly verbal and writing help. At the end of the year, 40% of the group went on to be identified as gifted using the traditional identifiers – a phenomenal proportion. This is the power of student-centered learning. As a side benefit, the racial and ethnic makeup of the group reflected the racial and ethnic makeup of the school without the need to manipulate selection. 4

Sustain Interventions Over Time: Additional research concluded that intensive intervention sustained over a lengthy time frame resulted in sustained intellectual growth.1 In other words,  the interventions can’t be a one-and-done model. They must be carefully applied throughout PreK and the primary grades to ensure that the progress made “sticks.”  There is evidence that short term interventions – just in PreK or Kindergarten, for example – have positive long-term effects on things like income, family stability, good jobs, stable housing, likelihood of attending college, and so on.5 But those short term interventions did not produce lasting academic benefit in terms of test scores; gaps resumed after a brief interval. Only long-term application of interventions produces long-term academic improvement.


¹ Gandara, P. Lost Opportunities: The Difficult Journey to Higher Education for Underrepresented Minority Students. UC-Davis, 2000

² Rothwell, J. Black and Hispanic kids get lower quality PreK. The Brookings Institution. June 2016

³ Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33(6), 934–945.



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