Tackle the achievement gap with urgency

Dan S. Green of Frankfort is a retired Kentucky State University sociology professor.
Dan S. Green of Frankfort is a retired Kentucky State University sociology professor.

If the issue were humorous, I would ask you: "How many school board members does it take to develop a plan to fix the achievement gap?"

The answer would be "many more than they have in Lexington."

But the achievement gap is a very serious issue. It is a blatant case of academic child abuse. That it exists is an unfortunate effect of life in a stratified society. That we continue to allow it to exist in a society that preaches equal opportunity is a disgrace.

The Fayette County school board, the Equity Council and the school district have been discussing and studying the issue for well over a year but still don't have any kind of plan to confront the problem.

As it stands at the moment, the valiant, struggling teachers with too many children in their classrooms to provide much individual instruction to deficient readers are compelled to do what they can.

Of considerable interest, Big Brothers Big Sisters — with the help of The Kentucky Bank, the Urban County Government and an anonymous donor — has, with little fanfare, planned a program to confront the achievement gap.

They will mentor 20 second-graders in reading at William Wells Brown Elementary School for about an hour a week. This modest program by far overshadows anything being implemented or even suggested by the school board or Equity Council.

It is, in fact, a rather simple, straightforward problem that does not require a complicated solution. Schools must spend increased time with the children deficient in reading and vocabulary-building from day one, until each child achieves grade level. This does require a real commitment or more teachers and some restructuring of the classroom, the daily educational process or the educational system.

The achievement gap is the result of parents not preparing their children for school, and exists largely among poor, minority families. But it is not simply a matter of being poor; rather, the problem comes from the harmful consequences of being poor.

It naturally sprouts from how the poor must live, what they know and don't know, their decisions, and what they value. The culture of the poor encompasses many single-parent families, stressed and ill-educated families, with few books at home, no money for outside enrichment activities, little access to libraries, little emphasis on learning, limited discipline, and children often engaged in inappropriate activities instead of healthy, age-appropriate activities.

This way of life greatly hinders a child's success. They don't read well; their vocabulary is limited; their experience outside of their immediate milieu is limited to nonexistent.

Maybe the school board thinks the achievement gap needs further study, more meetings, more planning and training sessions, coordination and whatever else they do that does little more than obfuscate and prolong the issue.

Maybe the board erroneously thinks that there is no simple, single answer for reducing the number of novice learners, and that what works at one school will not work at another. And as it continues to evade the obvious, the situation worsens and children, left unmentored, continue to fall behind.

While the school board continues to be baffled and wring their hands over the issue, state Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, noting that teachers are the "frontline soldiers" on the achievement gap, had the novel idea that their voices should be heard.

His information from teachers found that they wanted more interaction between high- performing and low-performing students, and that teachers at low-performing schools don't think they are getting the same level of support given to high-performing schools.

The former is an excellent idea that should be implemented; the latter bears looking into.

The school board and Equity Council have offered us little; their time would be better spent mentoring disadvantaged students. Although I applaud the mentoring program of Big Brothers Big Sisters, it is not enough, and it needs a tighter design so the results can be verified.