OP-ED: Another Way Forward On Equity and Excellence

The author calls for expanding after school enrichment opportunities in the elementary schools.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers, “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.”

Indeed. Some students have a set of full-time, highly-dedicated, highly enthusiastic supplemental teachers in the form of their parents. Some students have parents who are better able to tutor them through academic rough patches, give advice and information on big assignments, critique their writing, give them practice with algebra, and quiz them for the next day’s test. Many children have parents who can and do go beyond what is taught in school through habits of “concerted cultivation” that consist of things like trips to museums, nature centers, the performing arts, bookstores, national parks, historic sites, and even other continents. Although poverty is a huge disadvantage for poor students, factors which are not strictly monetary but involve different levels of enrichment and academic support at home also play a large role in creating the achievement gap.  

So what should a school system do?  The best way to address the achievement gap is to create more opportunities for lower-performing children to receive academic support and enrichment outside of regular school hours, similar to what more privileged students have. Given the amount of outside reading top students do, these enrichment classes should be part of an all-out effort to get kids, especially boys, to read more.   

Use the After-School Hours: Expand Enrichment Options

The central strategy for narrowing the achievement gap should be to establish a robust program of after school tutoring and enrichment. We should set up a system of high-quality tutoring in the early elementary grades that will prevent students showing signs of academic trouble from developing deficits that will make catching up with their more-ready peers difficult. Yet, as beneficial as tutoring is, tutoring by itself will not bring children truly into the realm of academic excellence.  In addition to tutoring we should invest more in our existing enrichment programs so that every child has a chance to receive the “concerted cultivation” that is so common in households led by educated parents. The PTAs in the community already offer a number of after school enrichment programs, the options I propose here are intended to complement, not replace them.

In the early elementary years the extra instruction should focus on shoring up reading, writing, and mathematical skills of struggling students. Studies show that many students who do not do their homework are often neglecting it because they find the work too difficult and, without parental help, give up in frustration.  The purpose of early elementary supplemental instruction is to stop any child from falling so far behind in decoding or math skills that doing their homework becomes virtually impossible.  It is intended to help students (often boys) who usually can do the work, but are highly distractible and just need a place where they can receive some help staying focused. It is to help children develop higher reading skills so they can become independent readers themselves and close the gap between themselves and already-advanced students.

In later elementary school the basic-skills classes should be joined by classes on more interesting and advanced topics which would benefit all students, including middle-achieving and high-achieving ones. These classes would be similar to what exists at several elementary schools now, but would have more reading homework and meet at greater frequency and more weeks of the year. Rather than the tutoring of early elementary school - which was geared towards bringing skills-deficient students to proficiency - these classes should be designed to support struggling students, bring middle-achieving students into the realm of excellence and to let already-advanced students truly soar. As Marina Budhos eloquently wrote recently, students need to find their passions.  These classes may be ideal places for students to find them.

I would like to see creative writing, poetry, drama, art, and math included in the extra instruction, but if we concentrate anywhere, Social Studies and Science (broadly defined) are good areas to concentrate in.  One reason for that concentration is that in the fall of 2011 the Administration and Board of Education cut 30 minutes a day from already-limited Social Studies and Science time to allow for expanded math instruction. Although I understand the importance of strong foundations in math, I see this decision as problematic for several reasons.  First, it shrinks students' awareness of the world and therefore deprives them of the ability to think critically about a variety of subjects. Second, it is detrimental to their future reading comprehension abilities. Everyone - children and adults - needs to have familiarity with the subject a text is about to understand it. Social Studies and Science are two of the best avenues to use to build the “cultural literacy” necessary to fully understand a whole swath of non-fiction texts, current events, and historical fiction. Even if someone has good decoding skills and vocabulary, comprehending a text without familiarity with the subject matter is difficult and reading strategies only go so far in making up for that. Teaching content is teaching reading, so depriving students of content will weaken their reading comprehension skills in the long-term.  

The after school enrichment classes should be academic, but fun. Beyond making up for the diminished time in Science and Social Studies, there are many positive directions we could and should go in.  Teachers could teach subjects previously covered in school, to offer students greater depth. They could have units on subjects that will be covered in the future, in order to build the scaffolding that will make that future material more accessible. There could be classes on topics that are interesting to kids and are academic, yet fall through the cracks of the elementary school curriculum or just novels and poems that the students’ teachers did not have the time for during Language Arts.  The actual choice of subjects would depend on what teachers decide is prudent and hopefully allow student and parental choice, but classical music, history, mythology, folklore, art are a few possibilities.  

I have mentioned special consideration for Social Studies and Science, but I have broad definitions of what those subjects are. For example, students could have an interdisciplinary unit on India where they learn about India itself, and then read a graphic novel version of the Ramayana. There are many ways to integrate math and science. There are numerous ways teachers could use inquiry-based instruction and could encourage critical thinking by staging debates or having children consider important moral questions. With their deeper knowledge bases children could become better at studying issues from multiple sides; for instance, when students are studying the American Revolution from the American point of view during the regular school day they could discuss it from the British point of view after school.

Science topics could be subjects which are likely to be simply very interesting to young children, like subjects related to paleontology, animals, and space. Other subjects could be elementary-appropriate STEM subjects. These kind of units could be "How Your Microwave, TV, and DVD Player Work," for future inventors; "Computer & Web Programming," for future software architects; "How Airplanes Fly" for future aeronautical engineers; "The Chemistry of Your Kitchen," for both chemists and chefs; and "The Origins of Diseases" for future doctors and researchers.  Imagine both the learning and the enjoyment kids in an Engineering/Architecture unit would take out of studying bridges, skyscrapers, and even roller-coasters and then designing and building them on computers and then with construction kits. This is what I mean by "academic but fun."

Supplemental instruction is the most powerful vehicle to pull middle-achieving students to higher levels of achievement and preparing them for high-level classes in the middle schools and beyond.  Students who perform at the top of a class learn a great deal beyond the classes from parental enrichment or through their own independent reading and these classes would encourage that.  By strengthening the backgrounds of already-achieving students, these classes may lay the groundwork for exceptional levels of achievement.  An after school program like this would have as a goal improving the skills of lower-performing students so that they are ready to be in high-level classes, without a forced measure like the elimination of low-level classes.

I have said less about Language Arts, Math, and the arts, but they should be included as well. Teachers could set up poetry circles.  Math tutoring would continue for weaker students, but teachers could also sponsor Khan Academy groups where advanced students get together and move through challenging math topics together, with the teacher there to guide them when needed.

The Power of Reading

One key feature of these classes has to be reading homework. High-level reading is not innate or even the direct result of parents reading to children; it comes from extensive practice reading.  Children whose reading skills place them in the 98th percentile on average read independently for 65 minutes per day.  Children at the 90th percentile read for 21.1 minutes per day.  Children who are at the 80th percentile read for 14.2 minutes per day.  Children at the 50th percentile and below read for less than five minutes per day.  If we could only get students to read for an additional twenty minutes per day their reading skills, familiarity with sentence and paragraph structure, vocabulary, and knowledge of the world would soar.

A troubling issue in child reading patterns is that boys read significantly less than girls do.  One OECD study found that in the United States there is a 20 point gap in the percentage of boys and girls who read for pleasure.  Boys also tend to read less-challenging literature when they do read, such as comic books, although they are more likely to read newspapers.  In South Orange-Maplewood 10-15% more girls score Proficient on the Language Arts NJASK and different reading habits plausibly cause that.  By having students read more these classes of discovery may be a good solution to the gender achievement gap that exists alongside the racial and economic ones.


As for the key issue of cost: When I asked Board of Education member Mark Gleason about after school supplemental instruction, he was intrigued. Assuming that the classes would not take place every day or all year long, he said the money for them was "findable." The estimate was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, but the actual cost would depend on multiple variables and is not possible to precisely estimate. If private funding could be found, if we have parent volunteers, or if there were some sliding-scale fee structure established like with PTA enrichment classes the cost to taxpayers could be very manageable.

Other Ideas & Conclusion

The changes proposed here are not a “magic bullet.”  But in the more realistic terms of "will what is proposed here beneficial?" I think the answer is clearly "yes."  When charter schools have expanded instructional time, they have seen improved results.  Roland Ferguson's recent analysis of thirty-five charter schools in New York City showed that expanded instructional time and "robust tutoring" (which need not be one-on-one) were two of the five most important factors in what made a school effective. 

So what else would help?  Aside from the supplemental instruction recommended here, the following are ways that could also improve student performance.

• Practical Professional Development:  Help teachers, especially new ones, master classroom management and instructional clarity. The idea is not to make teachers stricter, but to show teachers how they can minimize the vacuums of activity where student disruption and bullying occur. Classroom disruption is problematic for the whole class and also for the student who may be suspended because of it. Suspensions are often necessary, but we all must acknowledge that suspensions are detrimental to learning and that the students would be better off if the need for suspensions decreased. This professional development could be along the lines of Doug Lemov's ideas.

• Blended Learning for math and reading: Teachers will always be central to how much children learn in school, but technologies can be yet another tool in teachers’ repertoire to reach students. Technology facilitates differentiated instruction, diagnosis of areas of weakness, and can even be a form of extending the school day and year. 

• Peer Mentoring: Dr. Lovie Lilly has said that often African-American students who qualify for high-level classes choose not to take them. That suggests a need to do more peer and recent-graduate mentoring to encourage reluctant AP-enrollees to take these classes.

• Reading Outreach: It’s impossible to exaggerate the benefits of reading. It’s so simple, but if we want to see more students reach excellence then getting more students to read more has to be part of the strategy. We must not overlook the fact that not all girls are frequent readers, but some special outreach to boys is justified. We must avoid perpetuating stereotypes, but if we have any desire to close the gender achievement gap we have to admit that boys read less than girls do and that that is a cause of their academic lag.

• More rigor at all levels. Given how important writing skills are in college and in many professions and how writing stimulates critical thinking, writing homework cannot be neglected. 

• A Newcomers Program: Given that many struggling students in South Orange-Maplewood are new arrivals from lower-performing school districts, a guidance program designed to help them adjustment to South Orange-Maplewood may be helpful in addition to various academic programs we already have or are about to set up.

The needs of low-achieving, middle-achieving, and high-achieving students should all be on the front-burner of a diverse school district like South Orange-Maplewood. The following programs should be considered for higher-level students. At some point in the future hopefully the community can discuss these in more detail.

• Accelerated math in the elementary schools.

• An improved elementary school Gifted & Talented program.

• Accelerated or honors courses beginning in 7th grade in Social Studies, Science, and Language Arts similar to what we have for math. Access should be available to much more than the 10-15% that Brian Osborne calls for in the new accelerated 8th grade Language Arts class.

• AP Economics, AP Computer Science, AP World History at Columbia High School and the creation of non-test focused, but college level, courses.

• A Science Research Course such as the one Millburn High School offers that will allow top science students to conduct original research and enter the Intel and Siemens science competitions.

• The IB Diploma Programme in the high school if the Middle Years Programme is successful and the budget picture allows it.

• Mandarin and complementary electives on Asia.

The achievement gaps associated with socio-economics, race, and gender have many causes, and schools themselves can always be improved.  But the core issue is, as Gladwell writes, “Schools work.  The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”  If we want to close the achievement gaps, expanding supplemental instruction after school, for tutoring and enrichment, is the most powerful step towards equity we could take.

Jeffrey Bennett lives in South Orange.  He welcomes comments and email. 

Donna Nitzberg January 04, 2012 at 06:41 PM
I'm glad you mentioned the gender gap. It is a troubling phenomenon that seems to be often overlooked in our school district. I also think that the middle school libraries could and should do more to encourage reading for pleasure than they do now.
Lori Sender January 06, 2012 at 02:07 PM
Lots of good points Jeff and I especially agree about the problem of boys not reading as much as girls. However, my feeling is that after school enrichment is just not the high mark that parents expect. I taught last year a course in writing at Jefferson in the enrichment after school program. Although some kids did a lot of writing, I found it so hard to get them to read. After all, this wasn't a class they were getting graded on, this was supposed to be "fun." And the pressure was on to make it fun, sort of like summer camp. That is just simply not the environment to improve reading skills. Sure you can teach a kid to cook, to ski, etc., outside the classroom, but truly getting the kid to read must be done mostly in the classroom, with the teacher assigning reading outside and the parents signing off on the reading each and every night. That child needs that grade as the carrot, especially the boys. And the parents need to be vigilant about signing off, as well as the teacher needing to be vigilant about checking those signatures. In middle-school it's even more crucial for the teachers to make sure the kids are reading, to truly follow-up on this.
Marina Budhos January 06, 2012 at 04:54 PM
I think this is fine as a base and it's already going on in the district, but we can be far more imaginative and learn from exciting programs and ideas that are out there, especially targeting boys and reluctant readers. Take, for instance, what my husband Marc Aronson followed on his blog--an after school reading club for boys run by an innovative librarian--all reluctant readers, some of them a grade or two behind: http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/nonfictionmatters/2008/12/12/a-great-guys-read-program/
John Davenport January 12, 2012 at 05:45 AM
I agree almost 100% with these ideas for more enrichment and extra assistance for struggling students in elementary schools. The trouble is just the logistics of that extra time after school hours. We really do need more productive programs running from 3-5 pm. Marina is also right that our social studies and science curricula need to be improved in elementary grades. In fact, I'd add that I think Social Studies/History needs a thorough review through grades 6-12 as well. There is little logic to the way students learn a bit of world history, a bit of American history, a bit of geography and culture studies, and a bit more of this and that, and then repeat it all in the next two grades in some more depth. Science at least has a sequence that makes more sense.
Marina Budhos January 12, 2012 at 02:38 PM
Agree wholeheartedly on the Social Studies. My own sixth grader is impatient at having literally learned the Revolution and the Lenape Indians in every single grade since 2nd (with little increasing sophistication), and now is the breathless sprint to Vietnam by the end of the year. Some of this is dictated by the NJ Core standards, which I frankly am not in love with. However, there are many, many ways we can embolden and enrich the base of those standards. We need much bolder and greater leadership in the area of Social Studies.


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