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Closing the Gap: the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard

"If you had to pick the single most pressing problem in education, this would be it," says HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney.

She's referring to what's known as the achievement gap in the United States – the persistent disparity in educational, and hence economic, success of its disadvantaged, and disproportionately nonwhite, children. It is a gap that remains half a century after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools.

It is a sensitive issue, which some scholars frame in terms of race and others prefer to discuss in terms of class.

But there is no doubt is it an urgent issue.

And to McCartney, the need to close the gap is a matter of nothing less than national purpose. "This is a country founded on equal opportunity for all," she says.

Harvard's response to this deeply felt need is the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI). Launched under McCartney's predecessor as dean, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the AGI is a University-wide research endeavor, with an emphasis on practice-based projects in schools.

The goal is to "convene the right people at the table, foundations and scholars," McCartney says, to do the research that finds practical answers and then disseminate those findings. She is even thinking that some of the "right people" to convene may be outside academia altogether.

She observes, "There is very good evidence that early interventions work," she continues, expressing hope that Harvard will soon be able to start working with communities and families on programs involving children as young as three years old.

She points to the work of Professor Catherine Snow on literacy skills in young children.

Snow has found that some children are behind before they even start school.

"The achievement gap is visible by the time children are four years old, as revealed in differential performance on assessments of vocabulary and emergent literacy skills," Snow says, explaining that these are the skills that predict performance on conventional literacy assessments in first grade, and on reading comprehension tests later on.

"In other words, a small initial gap can grow if it makes learning to read a big challenge and depresses enjoyment in reading," she says. "However, it is also relatively easy to help kids catch up during the early years, with excellent instruction and with appropriate attention to the domains of greatest need."

The current AGI faculty co-chairs are Ronald F. Ferguson, the AGI Director and a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government; HGSE Professor Richard J. Murnane;  and Charles J. Ogletree, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

According to Ferguson, the AGI is very much in a "planning mode" at the moment. Grants have already been made to fund some faculty research projects, he explains:

  1. An inquiry into why the achievement gap, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widened during the 1990s after narrowing for some years before.
  2. Research into "stereotype anxiety," which some scholars posit may hinder the academic performance of some nonwhite students.
  3. A book on "everyday antiracism," practical strategies for teachers and school administrators striving to treat their students sensitively and fairly.

The three major themes Ferguson wants to pursue are parenting, youth culture, and instruction. He wants to look into "home intellectual practices" as well as the social pressures within the youth culture "to try to understand and influence them, to get a clear idea of what's going on there."

He adds that he would like to "help kids to go the balcony and look down on their own youth culture" to see how it is affecting academic achievement.

Under the heading of "instruction," Ferguson also wants to focus on "cultural competence," phrase often heard nowadays to describe that quality of teachers who "understand enough the culture of the homes from which their students come that they can adapt their instruction to their students' predispositions," he explains.

Everyone understands that children respond in the classroom according to their different backgrounds, he adds. "But what's often absent is a clear articulation of what those differences are."

That lack is one of the knowledge gaps he is hoping to see filled by research in the context of the Achievement Gap Initiative.


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