Rethinking the performance gap | Higher education gamma

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce ask a provocative question: What would it mean if the bottom 40% of the income distribution had the same proportion of associate and bachelor’s degrees as the top 60%?

The answer:

  • We would increase the graduation rate of the bottom 40% by 29 percentage points, from 28% to 57%, with the biggest gains being seen by black and Hispanic students.
  • The financial benefit – from higher incomes and tax benefits – would total nearly $ 1,000 billion per year.


Equalizing academic success rates should not be an impossible task. It is not a radical or utopian goal.

So why does it seem beyond our capabilities?

Like you, I know the standard answers. Money – both the financial and opportunity costs of higher education – and the competing demands on student time.

Then there’s the rationalization that seems to trump all the rest: the widespread belief that too many students from low-income backgrounds are academically under-prepared for the rigors of a college education. After all, we know too well that many of these students had unequal access to high-quality preschools or very experienced K-12 teachers. Many were concentrated in very poor K-12 schools that did not offer advanced classes.

The rationale for disparities in college graduation rates takes various forms: Too many students from low-income backgrounds are not ready for college. That many suffer from success gaps.

Then there are repeated reports that a substantial proportion of low-income students perform well below grade level on standardized reading and math tests, a situation we are told that has worsened considerably. during the pandemic. According to a widely used assessment, 49 percent of third-graders in low-income areas are at least two levels behind in reading and math. The figure is similar for eighth graders.

The achievement gap – or what is now often called the “performance gap” or the “opportunity gap”, to reflect disparities in access to tutoring, extracurricular programs, parenting support and personalized feedback – has become a common way to justify class, racial and ethnic disparities in graduation.

According to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, just over a third of grade 12 students read correctly, and less than a quarter master math.

Disparities in standardized test scores elicited dramatic responses at the K-12 level. To take an example: The San Diego Unified School District decided to ditch regular standardized math tests, arguing that these tests present a limited picture of students’ knowledge and abilities.

Certainly, standardized multiple-choice tests (or “forced choice” tests, in the eyes of their detractors), have flaws. Focusing on speed, these high-pressure tests tell us little about the student’s problem-solving process. Students can play on the educated guessing results without really understanding the underlying concepts or mathematical thinking or having mastered the required procedural skills.

Critics of San Diego Unified see another motive at work. Since standardized tests are the only mechanism we currently have for comparing academic performance across constituencies and demographics, eliminating these tests is one way of making us forget a troubling reality: that more than half of San Diego Unified students do not meet state standards.

Critics also do not find the school district’s explanations for dropping standardized testing convincing:

  • That “there wasn’t much of a difference in what the students were able to do. It was a difference between who had access to different support systems.
  • That a “focus on arithmetic also doesn’t help students when they graduate high school and go to college or apply for jobs, because colleges and employers want students who are critical thinkers able to apply their knowledge in mathematics, rather than being human calculators ”.

But before we dismiss these arguments outright, we at the college level must recognize that with the right support and appropriate interventions, a much higher proportion of students are fully capable of earning a college degree.

So what should colleges do to advance academic equity and reduce achievement gaps and disparities in graduation rates? Here are seven proven strategies.

1. Create a more transparent alignment between high school and college.

We need to do a much better job of aligning the expectations of high schools and colleges. Dual degree / lower secondary courses have shown particular promise. These courses not only motivate and engage students better than traditional high school courses, but accelerate their progression to a post-secondary diploma.

2. Institute tutoring, extracurricular and summer programs.

Another way to link high schools and colleges is to expand outreach initiatives. Examples include weekend academies, like the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s Saturday Academies for middle and high school students, which improve their reading, reasoning, and writing skills through examination and writing. evaluation of primary source documents; engage students through class discussions, essay projects and artistic expression; and strengthen their knowledge of social and human sciences. Likewise, the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom program gives under-served high school students the opportunity to study enduring literary and philosophical works that raise deep questions about leading lives of meaning and civic responsibility.

3. Integrate the “College 101” training into the new student experience.

Many students benefit greatly from an introduction to college programs and study skills, time management, and mindset training. These can take place in a new student orientation, within a required freshman class, or in a learning community. The most successful programs not only familiarize students with degree requirements, distinctive college vocabulary, support services, and extracurricular opportunities, but also foster a sense of belonging and build social connections.

4. Provide each new student with a study plan and access to an advisor.

It is especially easy for first generation students to go off the rails. From the start, all new students, whether freshmen or transferees, benefit from a study plan that not only sets out a sequence of recommended and mandatory courses, but links those courses to possible careers. futures. Students also need a personal point of contact who can answer questions and provide comprehensive, one-stop advice.

5. Replace remedial courses with co-required remedial courses.

As part of the co-requisite model, undergraduates immediately enroll in credit bridging courses while receiving the extra support they need to be successful. This “just in time” approach helps students study particular concepts and practice Essential Skills as they emerge in a particular course.

Since The Georgia university system implemented concomitant remediation, it more than tripled the percentage of students who successfully completed bridge math courses and increased the success of bridge English courses by 50 percent.

The keys to the success of concomitant remediation are the implementation of comprehensive learning materials, including tutoring, study groups, learning centers and breakout sessions, and the integration of a additional teaching in high DFW courses (so that traveling students can easily take advantage of this assistance).

6. Establish a system to monitor student learning and trigger and target interventions as needed.

A data-driven system of early warning, behavioral counseling and proactive intervention benefits all students, but especially those from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their families to attend university . However, it is not enough to simply send a text message to a struggling student. A more personalized approach, especially from a faculty member, tends to be much more effective.

7. Rethink school paths, course design and pedagogy to maximize student success.

The types of curriculum, course designs and instructional innovations that promote academic success are no mystery. These include:

  • Structured degree courses: Intentionally designed, cohesive, carefully sequenced and synergistic courses that build on each other and align with particular career outcomes.
  • Learning communities and interest groups: A cohort program for students that offers shared intellectual and extracurricular experiences, or that is organized around a common theme, career goal or series of big questions, and that includes a faculty member dedicated and dedicated advice.
  • Mathematics course: Math lessons aligned with student goals and particular study programs, such as quantitative reasoning, data science, and calculus path.
  • High impact practices: In addition to participating in learning communities, other examples of useful and impactful teaching practices include opportunities to participate in supervised research, supervised internships, community service and learning, project-based learning, and study. abroad.
  • Evidence-based pedagogy: An approach to teaching that emphasizes active research and active processing of information, and which involves frequent interaction with a faculty member and with peers; regular, timely and substantial feedback; relevance and application of knowledge and skills in the real world; and public demonstrations of skill.

It’s a cliché, but true nonetheless: students don’t start in the same place. But that doesn’t mean we can’t bring them to similar levels of achievement.

The problem is not the lack of good ideas. It is a failure to implement evidence-based solutions.

Calls for fairness, all too often, are little more than examples of signaling virtue and moral demagoguery. But if you really care about equity in education, you should become an advocate for the kinds of institutional innovations that can maximize the educational outcomes of every student.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Norma A. Roth