In the battle to close the achievement gap, college is the endgame. Right? When we talk about transformational change, we’re talking about the sort of things that puts students on track for lifelong success, and in our world, a college education is instrumental in preparing someone for such success. But what prepares someone for college?
High school. Or at least, so I thought. When I was struck by the desire to expand educational opportunity, I was thinking mostly high school. I thought about SAT and ACT SCOREs, dropout rates, and the disparities among racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in each of these categories. High school is high stakes, as the experiences of some of my fellow Teach for America corps members have shown. When a 12th grader is reading on a 5th grade level and you have 180 days to prepare him or her for college, your prospects can look awful grim, and you have to fight harder than ever to maintain the high expectations that that student deserves.
Yet in focusing so much on the importance of high school, we often forget to trace the problem back to its source. The 12th grader who reads on a 5th grade level has an academic history. She reads on a 5th grade level in 12th grade because she was reading on a 1st grade level in 5th grade. Follow her history all the way back, and you might find that she left kindergarten without knowing any of her letter sounds.
Research suggests that a student who has two ineffective teachers in a row never recovers. The lower elementary grades, then, cannot be forgotten in the battle against the achievement gap. It is absolutely crucial that students receive an excellent education in these formative years. If we want our students to be ready for college in 12th grade, they need to be ready for 1st grade in kindergarten.