Please widen achievement gaps

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:13 PM

Lynn Stoddard

A few years ago, our society embraced a plea to “close the achievement gap” (in education) between poor minorities and everyone else. It was the battle cry of No Child Left Behind. Many people jumped on that bandwagon. They did not realize what it would mean. In reading, for example, we would have to stop the fast readers from reading until the slow ones caught up. It would be the same for math, writing or any other skill.

There may be few outside of the teaching profession who understand this principle: Good teaching widens learning gaps . Take any skill you want to name and show everyone how to do it better and those with an inherent aptitude for that skill will jump out ahead. It’s true for reading, math, writing, swimming, sculpting, drawing, chess, playing a musical instrument, public speaking, fishing, golfing or any other skill. The more you improve teaching, the wider the learning gap will be.

What does this mean for education? Does it mean that we must ignore the fast ones so others can catch up, as was done in No Child Left Behind? No, it means we have a golden opportunity to redesign education to make sure every child can excel in something. In this way we can widen achievement gaps and every child will learn more.

A few years ago Professor Calvin Taylor, a psychologist at the University of Utah, became well known for his research on human abilities and behavior. He found that those who are academically talented may not be talented in creativity. And, conversely, some who were highly creative were not talented academically. Taylor found that there may be more creative talents that can be developed than there are academic ones. He found that virtually everyone is above average in something, if schools provide enough choices.

What did Einstein mean when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge?” If what he said is true, why are schools more concerned with students acquiring knowledge than they are with developing imagination?

How much time and effort do schools spend on developing the powers of imagination and creativity compared with helping students achieve in a narrow, limited curriculum?

A simple, bold solution

Inasmuch as good teaching widens achievement gaps, it should be clear that two things must happen, two things that go hand in hand. We must first change our culture’s attitude.

Does it make sense to increase learning gaps? We are held back by an attitude that students should be standardized or made alike in knowledge and skills at grade-level check points. This attitude makes teachers concentrate their attention on the slow ones and ignore the others. How can we promote great teaching across the whole spectrum of student abilities and thus widen learning gaps?

There are several long-standing practices that hinder great teaching. We must eliminate the following:

• Insisting, with standardized testing, that teachers teach the prescribed curriculum and ignore student questions, interests and individual needs.

• Requiring teachers to teach a narrow, limited curriculum.

• Having compulsory learning and compulsory school attendance for students.

• Telling teachers from a distance what each child needs.

• Telling teachers what and how to teach.

• Making teachers feel like subordinate workers beholden to the state rather than to parents and students.

• Providing a salary that is not commensurate with the difficulty of the job.

• Parents who offer no support.

• Overloading teachers with too many students.

• Asking teachers to aim for the wrong goals.

• Making all students take courses, like higher math, for things they will never use.

• Holding teachers accountable for standardizing students.

• Comparing teachers and schools using standardized test scores.

• Having the same graduation requirements for all students.

• Asking teachers to emphasize things that are supposedly measurable and give less attention to things like curiosity, character and creativity.

• Making teachers feel inadequate with an overload of supervisors and administrative personnel.

After you remove these barriers to great teaching, there’s one more thing that can be done to widen learning gaps. Raise creative imagination to the top of the list of powers to be developed. Teachers, students and parents can transform public education with the power of imagination. Next to the power of love, imagination may be the strongest power of the human race. If imagination is given a prominent role in education, achievement gaps will widen all over the place because every child will be able to excel in something. Then you will have started a revolution.

Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is the author of four books, including “Educating for Human Greatness,” on the need for genuine reform of public education. He lives in Farmington and can be reached at

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