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The Education Achievement Gap: Minnesota's Embarrassment
The Achievement Gap: Idea Generator
September, 2004

The Education Achievement Gap

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Want to teach reading and math? Try singing!
Music has been called the universal language, and is a part of most peoples’ daily lives. The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, defines universal as “common to all situations.” Merriam (1964) states, “music is a universal trait of humankind” (p. 27). Hodges (1996) affirms, “song is an integral part of culture” (p. 484) and asserts, “singing is universal” (p. 495). Abeles, Hoffer, and Klotman (1994) clarify this common metaphor when they state, “music is not a universal language; it is a universal form of humanistic expression” (p. 285).

Since music is a “universal,” one of the most effective ways I see to close the achievement gap is to have children singing every day. Songs like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” have a Big Book format to affirm reading or songs like “This Old Man” offer the opportunity to affirm counting as well as rhyming. Songs are an appealing way to focus students’ attention and provide “teachable moments.”

MPR’s Tim Pugmire states, “Achievement gaps are often attributed to income level and home environment. Low-income families often have few educational resources at home. (And) recent immigrants don’t always have the English language skills needed to keep pace in school.” Daily singing can help bridge these gaps by providing a rich resource for classroom discussions to augment children’s background knowledge as well as develop their English language skills.

Created on 10/02/04 by Elizabeth K. Beery Olson of Farmington, MN

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Focus on Early Literacy
The best way to address "closing the gap" is to make certain there isn't one in the first place. The way to do that is to start early -- for both mothers and children. First, we must provide excellent pre-natal health care and nutrition for the mother including a chemically free pregnancy and subsequent health care and nutrition for the preschool child.

Second, we must do better with the millions of dollars spent on early education programs, Head Start and child care. We know what the early literacy skills are that children must know by the time they begin kindergarten. Millions of children learn these skills all the time. Those with "the gap" don't. We need to be certain that all children learn these skills. One effort could be an "Age 3 to Grade 3" school. Pre-k programs and a K-3 school would join together in the community with a common focus: literacy by the end of third grade. Revenue from the pre-K programs would come together here. Parent involvement is a key aspect.

Created on 09/13/04 by Robert Wedl of Eden Prairie, MN

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Put students at the center of education
“One-size fits all” schools and rules are not working with the diversity of today’s students. Our centralized education model puts lawmakers and districts at the center of education decisions and leaves teachers and students out. A decentralized student-centered model is the direct inverse – it caters to students needs. In the past 10 years, nearly every industry including financial services, retail, health care and even government services successfully changed their operating models to revolve around us: their customers, patients, and citizens. This requires decentralizing decision-making to schools and using student needs to guide local decisions.

For Minnesota schools, this means: 1) Preparing and empowering schools to customize their teaching and practices to their students, who are increasingly students of color; 2) Give school administrators full authority to make decisions including: managing their budgets and personnel; creating effective learning environments, customizing curriculum; and creating inclusive school cultures. Our children of color can do better only if we give our teachers and principals have all the tools possible to succeed.

Created on 09/27/04 by Susan Wollan Fan of Minneapolis, MN

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Teach music and reap the benefits
I just attended a conference on Special Education (funny, I thought all education was special) and I heard some validation that made my heart leap up with joy. It seems that a lack of the basic knowledge of phonemes, specifically rhyme schemes, alliteration, and cadences, were part of the rise in dyslexia. I said to the presenter, "Doesn't that sound like chorus to you?" And he actually said, "You're the Man!" and he wasn't being sarcastic. Our students are being given a double whammy in this area, because the other place they used to get positive reinforcement in this area was in their institutions of spiritual training and renewal, (when I was little it was called a church) but now it is largely missing.

I know that bands and orchestras cost money but choruses are much less expensive and apparently very, very necessary in this dysfunctional culture we are fostering. Singing uses a unique area of the brain and any time we use three distinct areas we prioritize what we want to learn!

Created on 10/03/04 by Charles Consaul of Horizon City, TX

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Research-based school practices
Closing the achievement gap and improving overall student achievement should not be a matter of conjecture and speculation. There are numerous research studies that point to specific factors that must be in place for high levels of learning to occur.

1. Positive school & classroom culture.
A community of learners(both staff, students& parents)who feel respected, accepted, connected & empowered.
2.Knowledge used meaningfully. Learning experiences that are relevant, interesting, engaging, and allow students to demonstrate a higher level of understanding and proficiency.
3. Reinforce effort and provide recognition. Teach
and exemplify the connection between effort
and achievement.
4. Develop educational coherence. Instruction,
assessment, curriculum and professional development must be fully aligned.
5. Develop the leadership capacity (administration and teacher) to implement and sustain continual improvement.

All high performing, low SES schools have these factors firmly embedded. (

Created on 10/05/04 by Vernita Mickens of Denver, CO

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Adopt meaningful measures of progress
Many non-AYP schools are currently being penalized for the failures of other schools.

Oftentimes parents only realize that their child is suffering when the child is significantly behind their grade level. By the time parents move their failing child to a charter school, the child is often already one or two years behind their peers!

Under the current system, the charter school then has one year to demonstrate three years worth of progress for that child, in the absense of which the school is listed non-AYP.

A more meaningful measure of progress would be to measure students for improvement (delta-change) rather than their current status. This could be applied for students who have changed schools in the past 3 years. This way, the current school would not be held accountable for the failure of the previous schools.

Created on 09/15/04 by Asad Zaman of Inver Grove Heights, MN

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Make sports work for the student
Put a greater emphasis on learning, growing and teamwork instead of individual glory and winning.

In a society focused on winning, sports programs in school have gotten away from their original intent and have become "win at all costs" events.

This takes away from the positive aspects of sports:

- Staying in shape.
- Learning how to work with one another as a team.
- Learning how to win with grace and lose with dignity.
- Respecting authority.
- Achieving excellence.
- Doing more than you thought you could ever do.

And sports helps student avoid just "hanging out" in places where you can get into trouble.

The lessons learned in sports could transcend the field of play and be used in all aspects of life, including the classroom.

Created on 09/15/04 by John Jansen of Minneapolis, MN

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Engagement gap
One of the primary limitations with debates over the “achievement gap” is that the categories we use to frame the “gap” are not capturing the essence of the problem. The notion of an “achievement gap” is based on a disparity in “achievement” test scores for African American/Latino/Native American students and White students.

The problem with the "achievement gap" framing is that it puts the onus or blame for the gap on the students, not the institutional structures and practices that create the gap. Rather than defining the gap as an “achievement gap” that puts the onus on students, the gap could be defined as a “skills gap.” (Steele, 2004).

However, simply teaching “skills” for the primary reason of improving test scores serves to dump down the curriculum and to disengage many students from school. My own preference is to define the gap as an “engagement gap” suggesting the need for activities that actively involve students in ways that give them agency and literacy practices.

Created on 10/12/04 by Richard Beach of Minneapolis, MN

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Back to basics
Virtually every district in the state squanders money, some on pools for elementary and middle schools, some on buildings, and some on staff. Start by putting the dollars into EDUCATION not staff, property and extra-curricular activities.

The very next step is to redirect some of the excessive per pupil expenditures on special needs programs. The masses are suffering for the extrordinary expenditures on those very few students with special needs.

We also need to focus the education. Reading, writing, arithmetic are the "core" studies, and the schools need to focus on that, not on basketball, soccer, or languages.

English is the language spoken in the USA. If you are in school, you speak it, period. Just like all our ancestors, if you want to speak in your native tongue, do so, but at home. All my ancestors EXPECTED their children to learn and speak English, we should too.

Finally, do not differentiate by color, because it does not matter. I don't buy the race argument for one second.

Created on 09/23/04 by John Gislason of West Saint Paul, MN

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As students might say: "Fix the culture, stupid."
In Education/Evolving's 2003 paper profiling ten Minnesota chartered schools, students said that their schools' "positive culture" attracted them, retains them, and makes a difference in their motivation to learn. Some said the factors they see as influencing positive culture, below, are prerequisites to learning.

Students might say decision-makers could reduce the achievement gap by valuing--even demanding--the following in school design:

- Small size of schools and classes
- Students' familiarity and regular contact with teachers and with other students (which contributes to their sense of safety)
- Individualized instructional methods
- A well practiced school mission or focus (e.g., the clear commitment to the African culture at Harvest Preparatory School)
- More flexibility in scheduling and pacing of learning
- Teachers' increased role in school-level decision making
- Individualized instructional methods

For more, see the "Positive Culture" paper,

Created on 09/23/04 by Kim Farris-Berg of Saint Paul, MN

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