Widening the Gap -Why our focus on narrowing the gap is failing our students.

We have seen many articles, blog posts, in-service training, and books that of all focused on narrowing the gap for our low achieving students in the classroom. Because of the focus on narrowing the gap we have seen many innovative and effective ways to help raise the expectations and performance of many struggling students. I believe that it is critical to address the needs of struggling students. Despite the need to help these students, I believe that the paradigm of narrowing the gap is totally flawed.

Many of her students who struggle often have much greater potential than how they are performing in class. Often we can search out ways to better meet the learning style of the child, and thereby help the child become closer to their learning potential. It is always my goal as a teacher to find that magic key, or instructional method that is going to be effective in helping a struggling child learn concepts that have not been able to before. In my 17 years of teaching I have had many experiences of getting non-readers to read, struggling mathematicians to do math, and helping many students be successful when that has not happened before. And thinking back through my many students one thing that I don’t recall seeing is a student that struggles, that starts to learn faster than the high achieving students in my classroom. It is in this learning velocity that presents the biggest problem in the concept of narrowing the gap.

The concept of narrowing the gap indicates that we need to decrease the distance between our high achieving students and are struggling students in their learning. While I think it is an admirable, and critical goal to get our struggling students to perform higher levels and get closer to grade level content, if we help these children catch up to the children who naturally learn at a faster pace than we have failed all of the other students in the class. If we do our job well as a teacher our students should have a much wider gap at the end of the year than at the beginning. Our high achieving students learn quickly and should excel quickly far beyond grade level expectations, the majority of the class will make strong growth usually beyond one year of learning, and are struggling students ideally should make better gains than I have in the past. We should do everything in our power as a teacher to ensure that every child is pushed to the limits of their capability so that they can achieve their maximum growth. The very nature of pushing children to their maximum capability indicates that our high achieving students will achieve at much higher levels than they ever have in the past, thereby significantly widening the gap between their performance and the performance of our struggling students.

While it may seem a little Utopian to believe that we can push each individual child to their maximum capability, I believe we’re getting closer to having the tools and resources necessary to reach this goal. Technology and programs are becoming more individualized, and can focus more specifically on each child’s needs. Differentiated instruction is becoming very well developed, and we have many resources that can help us in developing a strong differentiated program for our classroom. While we may not have enough hours in the day to meet every need of every child in their learning, it is very possible to significantly improve what we are doing so far.

I hope that at the end of the school year we can look back and be proud of the fact that we have widened the gap between our highest and lowest students in her classroom. Not because our lowest students got further and further behind grade level expectations, but because all of her students have accelerated and progressed at their highest levels.