Closing the Achievement Gap in Education

In President Jimmy Carter’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo, Norway in 2002, he said the greatest challenge the world faces is the “growing chasm between the richest and poorest people on earth.”

If the widening gap between rich and poor is a root cause of many of the world’s unresolved problems, then how is the issue of poverty reflected in the educational environment and experience of school children within our own cities, states, and country? More specifically, in light of high school graduation season, after receiving a public education, what do high school graduates have to look forward to? Some will attend college, enter the job force, enlist in the military, or look for employment.

According to a 2012 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 66 percent of high school graduates continue their education in a college or university, 69 percent of students who do not attend college will be actively working, while a third of them will be unemployed or seeking work. That’s not even counting the 370,000 high school students who dropped out of high school.

I work with high school students through my church and I often ask them what they are looking forward to doing when they finish high school, what their goals and dreams are, and if they enjoy school. Because of the rising cost of higher education, many are unsure whether college is even worth it. Others struggle with family issues, grades, and much more than the occasional bad hair day.

High-risk testing and the cultural value of consumerism are two factors that increase the achievement gap.  Schools have taught students to regurgitate information on tests and to become productive consumers in the free market economy instead of developing learners.

Teachers need to be able to help students become passionate about an area of their studies, think critically, and utilize their education to positively improve the course of their lives and community. In reality, educators spend a large amount of time on managing large classrooms. They must also teach towards the high-risk tests that determine the government funding their schools receive.  In the last few months teachers and students in Seattle and Portland have been part of a growing number of voices protesting and calling for assessment and achievement measurements that more directly correlate to relevant curriculum than the standardized tests of their states and individual districts.  Reports on student SAT and ACT scores, portfolios, and tests that align more to the current curriculum have been proposed as the solution.

As their education has become commodified and compartmentalized, students have become the currency; and believe me, they know it! The consumer mentality that is all about convenience and the lowest cost dictates the importance of the quantity of people with an education versus the quality of that education. Lots of students end up sliding by with menial skills and high school continues to be a trial for students to get out in the rat race of the “real world” and become bigger and better than those around them. High school, and certainly every level of public education, should be a place of investment, inspiration, and equal opportunities. Lawmakers and district officials, along with parents and community leaders, should discuss what they can contribute to close the achievement gap not only so that students can benefit from better jobs and higher education, but also so students can also formulate their own identity, interests, and vision for the future.

The Cartesian phrase “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) was foundational to the Enlightenment which championed man’s creativity and ability to reason in order to make the world a seemingly better place. Unfortunately, our educational system does not champion individual thought and creativity as much as it did in the past. We think of value in terms of numbers and the ability to produce. As my mentor, Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, has taught me, today’s ethos is “I consume, therefore I am”, but as Christians our ethos must be “I am loved by God, therefore I am.” I hope students who are coming out of high school do not believe the only value that they have lies with their career and educational decisions, but to know they are loved by God as uniquely talented and valuable individuals. We must work in our communities to lead by example and give creative solutions to the problems of high-risk tests and consumerism through dialogue, advocacy, and communicating the changes that are needed in order to help close the achievement gap.

 -Andrew Kruse is currently working on church and school partnerships while studying Pastoral Studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, OR. He is actively involved as a leader in The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, and Central Bible Church student ministries.