The Real Achievement Gap- Defined For The Information Age

By: Dr. Charles M. Reigeluth
The “achievement gap” is traditionally defined as the gap between groups of students of the same age – typically racial or socioeconomic groups.  This definition arose out of industrial-age thinking and results in a misplaced emphasis for improving education.  Here is why.
We know that different students learn at different rates.  Furthermore, any individual student learns at different rates at different times in his or her life – the cognitive counterpart to the physical growth spurts that characterize child development.  Yet our current educational systems typically teach a fixed amount of content in a fixed amount of time.  Students move on at the same rate, based on time rather than on learning.  Faster learners have to wait for the rest of the class, squandering the potential of those who arguably will contribute the most to society.  Slower (mostly disadvantaged) learners are forced to move on before they have learned the material, creating learning deficits that make it even more difficult for them to learn related material in the future, virtually condemning them to drop out.
This one-size-fits-all, lockstep, time-based system could not be better designed to sort students – it is designed to leave slower and disadvantaged students behind.  And, in fact, that met an important need in the Industrial Age, when manual labor was the predominant form of work and we did not need to educate most students to high levels.  However, in the Information Age knowledge work is replacing manual labor as the most common form of work, and all aspects of life are becoming much more complex.  Hence, we recognize as a society that no child should be left behind.  We rightly want and need to close the achievement gap.
However, we recognize that students don’t learn a sport at the same rate and that they don’t learn to play a musical instrument at the same rate, so why should we strive for them to learn cognitive skills at the same rate?  The achievement gap that we should be most concerned about is the gap between what an individual student has learned and what that student could have learned.  The goal should be for all children to reach their potential, not for all to have learned the same things by the same age.  The only way to all learn the same things by the same age would be to hold back the faster learners.  Imagine if we did that on the football field.
Defining the achievement gap this way still allows us to compare the average achievement gap of disadvantaged students to that of less disadvantaged students.  But it places the emphasis on helping each individual student to reach her or his potential.  It recognizes and capitalizes on the individual differences among students.  It helps us avoid the trap of being content to bring down the achievement of the faster learners to narrow the gap.  It recognizes that all students have cognitive growth spurts and plateaus that we should not try to eradicate.  And it recognizes that different students have different talents that should be nurtured in order for each student to reach his or her potential.  While there are basics that all children should learn, we should also nurture the special talents that each child has.
This Information-Age definition of the achievement gap helps us to see that the gap can only be closed

  • with personalized learning and personal learning plans,
  • with competency-based student progress rather than time-based progress,
  • with each student’s performance compared to a standard of achievement (criterion-referenced assessment, which is designed to ensure learning) rather than to the performance of other students (norm-referenced assessment, which is designed for sorting students),
  • with intrinsic motivation nurtured through authentic projects that are tailored to each student’s interests, and
  • with other changes that we (Reigeluth and Karnopp) describe in our new book, Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold.

This redefinition of the achievement gap can help us to rethink and reinvent our educational systems to better meet our students’ educational and developmental needs in this increasingly complex world.  We welcome your comments.
Dr. Charles M. Reigeluth has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Instructional Psychology from Brigham Young University.  He taught high school science for three years, was a Professor in the Instructional Systems Technology Department at Indiana University for 25 years, and was chairman of the department for three years.  Follow him on Twitter at @CReigeluth.

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