Ellen Galinsky

    Closing the Achievement Gap

    Posted April 19th, 2010 by

    This year, a number of changes are planned by the Obama Administration, the Department of Education, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and others to address the achievement gap in the United States, a gap that begins before children even enter school and widens as children grow up.

    The achievement gap, which the National Governors Association calls “one of the most pressing education-policy challenges that states currently face” is almost universally defined as a problem of low-income children and the distance between them and their higher-income counterparts in academic achievement. That gap certainly exists, and absolutely must be addressed. But there is a much larger and more significant gap—a gap whereby all of our children aren’t living up to their full potential and aren’t gaining the life skills they need to thrive now and in the future. There is no question in my mind that we won’t be able to address the achievement gap for some of our children if we don’t address this life skill gap for all of our children.

    In nationally representative studies of employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute, employers tell us again and again that young people don’t have the life skills—not just the content information— they need for the 21st century.

    Others have talked about skills for the 21st century before, but eight years and interviews with more than 85 of the leading researchers in child development and neuroscience have led me to new insights about which skills truly have short-tem and long-term effects on children’s development. Unfortunately, however, we aren’t turning this  knowledge into action well enough or soon enough.

    Often when people talk about skills, it turns into a debate—skills versus content, but that’s the wrong debate. Both are essential and they are inextricably interconnected for the simple reason that life skills enable us to use the knowledge we have. Essential life skills involve the part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) that weaves together our social, emotional and intellectual capacities in pursuit of our goals.

    Life skills are tied to academic achievement, without question. Take one of these skills—focus and self control. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and a group of other academics recently reviewed six studies that followed children over time. Out of literally hundreds of analyses, only three competencies that children had when they entered school were strongly related to their later success in reading and math. Two are obvious: the children who were good at math and reading when they entered school were likely to be good at math and reading years later. But the third is less obvious. It is “attention skills.” As Brooks-Gunn says, attention skills “allow children to focus on something in a way that maximizes the information they get out of it.”

    Life skills can be improved. Megan McClelland and her colleagues from Oregon State found that when preschool children improved their focus and self control during the year, it was equivalent to having an extra month of pre-kindergarten in their gains in literacy skills, and an extra 2.8 months in vocabulary skills. And focus and self control can be taught, as illustrated by the computer game experiments of Michael Posner of the University of Oregon with four- to six-year-olds.

    Life skills are at the heart of learning. For example, the skill of making connections—that is figuring out what’s the same, what’s different and sorting things into categories—is a skill that underlies literacy, mathematics, and the sciences. In addition, making unusual connections is at the heart of creativity. And in a world where people can google for information, this is a must-have capacity.

    Life skills underlie good relationships with others. Perspective taking—understanding what others think and feel —goes far beyond empathy. As the late Peter Drucker, considered the father of modern management has said, “an outside-in perspective”—seeing things as customers and clients would see them—is the ability that is behind the launch of most successful businesses. For children, studies have found links between perspective taking and reading skills as well as between perspective taking and being involved in less conflict with other kids.

    Another example is the skill of taking on challenges. In today’s multi-tasking, distracting, complex world children must do more than cope with challenges—they need to actively take them on.

    There are everyday things that busy parents and teachers can do to promote life skills. For example, Megan McClelland uses a measure called the Head-to-Toe Task: children are asked to do the opposite of what the experimenter tells them to do. If the experimenter says, “Touch your toes,” the children are to touch their heads; if told to touch their heads, the children are to touch their toes. Playing this as a game calls on the children to pay attention to the directions, remember the rules, and inhibit the tendency to go on automatic and follow the directions of the experimenter.

    Life skills must be promoted in age-appropriate ways. It would be counter-productive to expect two or three-year-old to be able to switch from one rule to another when playing the Head-to-Toe Task. In addition, life skills must be promoted in playful ways. There would be nothing worse than taking away the fun in these games—turning them into drill and kill routines that sap their purpose, which is to engage children in learning.

    It is time for real reform in addressing the achievement gap, but if we do not  address the life skills gap for all of our children we will not make the gains we as a country, as parents, and as teachers sorely need and deserve.

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    13 Comments

    December 4, 2011 at 8:21 am by Tawny Reves

    Excellent submit and straight to the point. I don’t know if this is truly the best place to ask but do you folks have any thoughts on where to get some professional writers?

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    December 3, 2011 at 11:46 pm by Jimmy Pecor

    Great writter, Thanks for delivering the prestigious post. I found it useful. Kind regards !!

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    October 12, 2010 at 2:50 am by ian

    Nice list. I will use it in future. Thanks for the efforts to make this list!Nice list. I will use it in future. Thanks for the efforts to make this list!

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    Anita Reply:

    @ian – Thanks for your comment!

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    April 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm by Ellen Galinsky

    @Laura L A,

    What great comments.

    I do want to make it clear that it is never too late for us and for kids to learn these skills—any adult can promote them, any child can learn them, and it doesn’t take expensive equipment or materials.

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    April 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm by chris

    As I do agree that the “gap” should be closed some and that there is a great difference in family status vs. education, I also believe from my experiences in child development that there are also things at home that as parents we can do to help close that gap. Like not putting our children in front of the tv so much or using the tv as a tool for educational development if that is how the learning style is for them. I believe as parents we have just as much responsibilty as the teachers in the school do in educating our children and others. Sure, in this day and age there are more working families and less time to spend with our children, that’s were priorities need to change and the time needs to be taken. Also making sure that the daycares we trust with our children are the types that actually spend time with them. I’m not opposed to the above article for changes at all. I do know that what most of our children learn and how they learn to live is what they learn at home or from the people most directly involved in their lives.

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    April 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm by Christina W.

    I wish this article/research included over medicating. Yes, I believe in focusing on the postive ways of improving things, but it needs to be recognized that over medicating kids for their inability to focus is going to be a huge problem down the road. This is great that we learn to teach our 4 year olds the ability of focusing but how do we reteach our 14 year olds who have been medicated for 8 years?

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    April 19, 2010 at 4:09 pm by Anita

    Excellent comments. Thank you all for sharing your perspectives.

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    April 19, 2010 at 3:33 pm by Lory Stoneburner

    I agree that children today are lacking in the achievments that they should know by a certain age. They are not learning because most kids today are sent to daycare programs and are not taught properly. My son could not know that if he did this, that would happen. Children are not taught consequences anymore. Everything is ok. There is no wrong.

    With that in mind, how can a child learn anything if everything is right? They grow up with this thinking and it goes right into the job situation. I worked with CNA’s and could not believe that these young girls could not understand why there were messes after they put briefs on the patients. They just put another one on the same way. This will carry through the rest of there lives. If children are not taught consequences for their actions, they are not going to learn it after they are adults.

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    April 19, 2010 at 3:23 pm by Nell

    It will be interesting to see how the change in administration really plays out in developing “life skills.” With decreasing funding and an emphasis on raising the bottom of the test score range, the curriculum has been narrowed to a fine point. Enrichment? Life skills? Creativity? Show me the money. And as long as industry drives the discussion about what “workers” need, we won’t be looking at developing a love of learning. In teacher education there is much talk about creating teacher prep programs that are like medical internships. But we have no Hippocratic oath in education – just industry needs. I’m not optimistic.

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    dadmoffatt Reply:

    @Nell, right on!

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    Kira Reply:

    @Nell, I have to agree. Everyone should read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” to see how education for poor children has turned into test preparation in two subjects–Language Arts and Math. Education, much less “life skills,” have gone by the wayside.

    Until we start to deal with societal inequities–not teacher accountability–this gap will remain. In fact, in this race to the bottom, the gap will only widen.

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    April 19, 2010 at 2:51 pm by Laura L A

    I love that idea of “unusual connections” as the heart of creativity. Children can make wonderfully creative connections, but too often we ask them to be more narrow, more literal.
    Teaching is not easy, but I find it helpful to post in my classroom a few generalizations, such as “reading one book teaches us how to read another.” Making connections is another of those important generalizations. As teachers, we can nudge students toward some of those connections by offering certain content and activities. But, the key is those unusual connections – we have to do things a bit differently to help kids to those, because we, as yet, don’t make them ourselves. What a revolutionary idea to encourage kids to question our commands as a way to build intellectual strength.
    Now, touch your toes, and I will touch my head.

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