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Achievement gap will never close until we tackle students’ systemic barriers

By Glenda Cohen

Published in the Boston Globe, February 19, 2020

As a public high school teacher for the past 16 years, I was not surprised to read that the achievement gap between students of color and white students increased “dramatically” in Boston’s high schools (“Racial disparity widens for graduates,” Page One, Feb. 15). It’s not because I believe that students aren’t capable (because they are), or that they don’t want to learn (because they do). It’s because unless we face some truths about why there’s a gap in the first place, we will continue to waste time and money trying to repair something that just can’t be fixed.

Truth No. 1: Low-income students need to work, and many work so many hours they have little time to devote to school. During class, these kids are unable to stay awake and engaged. The incentive that drives them is their financial survival rather than doing well in school.

Truth No. 2: There’s a lack of counseling support. If students can’t get the help they need to map out a college plan, then they have little incentive to reach high when it comes to their academics.

Truth No. 3: Paying for college is out of reach for just about everyone. Increasingly, financial “aid” has become a synonym for loans, with the lowest-income students taking on the heaviest debt. The motivation of even the brightest students fades when they realize they can’t afford to begin college, and even if they can, they’ll likely run out of money before they get a degree.

Truth No. 4: No documents means no college for immigrant students. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sets lofty goals when describing its vision for English-language learners, using phrases like “meaningful curriculum” and ”high standards.” But our federal government is forcing them to live in the shadows. These days, the legal status that would allow them to attend college is nearly impossible to attain. So why should they care about coming to school regularly and doing well on standardized tests?

Closing the achievement gap has become an industry unto itself, with consultants and policy makers descending on school systems to share their “expertise.” But until we face the truth about why there is a disparity to begin with, the achievement gap will never close.

Glenda Carey Cohen is a teacher, editor, and writer.

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