Nation & World

Closing the ‘achievement gap’

6 min read

Educator Merrow sees an ‘Affection Deficit Disorder’ in American schools

The achievement gap in American K-12 schools is well-documented, and is characterized by racial and class differences.

By the end of fourth grade, black, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind their wealthier (and mostly white) peers in reading and math scores. By 12th grade, that gap has widened to four years.

By age 17, only one in 50 black and Latino students can read and comprehend something like the science section of a newspaper. For whites, the comparable rate is one in 12.

Education scholars point to a lot of reasons for the achievement gap, including differences in parenting styles, nutrition, lead exposure, and access to medical and vision care.

In the past few years, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Harvard Achievement Gap Initiative have contributed to the discussion about this subject in the Askwith Forum.

The latest expert to chime in on the gap is longtime education reporter John Merrow Ed.D. ’73, president of the nonprofit Learning Matters and contributor to “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on public television. In 35 years of radio and television reporting, he’s won multiple Peabody, Polk, and Hugo awards.

Before an audience of about 80 in HGSE’s Longfellow Hall Nov. 1, Merrow cut to the chase: “The achievement gap drives me crazy,” he said, calling the concept “a load of crap.”

The achievement gap is a series of grim facts, Merrow acknowledged — but the dark data is inevitably “preceded by gaps in opportunity, expectation, and affection.”

Yes, affection. He referred to a new affliction suffered by American schoolchildren — “Affection Deficit Disorder.”

At the lower end of the economic scale, elementary schools are, said Merrow, “joyless places” replete with attention — in the form of academic drills and test preparation — and scarce on affection.

“Affection” is shorthand for paying attention to the whole child, including the need for play, exercise, music, and art, he said.

It is also affection itself — “whether it is a hug or a high five,” said Merrow. “Schools have an important role to play in ending the affection deficit.”

He acknowledged that big class size takes a bite out of the idea of personal attention. Trying to reach too many students in one class “is not teaching,” said Merrow, a one-time English teacher. “It’s crowd control.”

But small class size is not the answer. With the right leadership and the right teachers, he said, schools can close the affection gap.

Merrow offered two examples of schools that work, both based on stories he had done for the “NewsHour.”

One story was an attempt to look at “the children of the surge” — kids whose mothers or fathers were deployed to Iraq. The story led Merrow this spring to McNair Elementary at Fort Bragg, N.C., one of more than 200 schools run by the Department of Defense. About half the pupils there had at least one parent in a combat zone.

“It was all affection,” he said of the school, staffed by tough ex-military teachers, including the principal, an ex-Green Beret. “Because there’s no affection deficit, these kids are so plugged in.”

And it got results. By third grade, pupils at McNair “blew the doors off standardized test [results] in North Carolina,” said Merrow.

On the East Coast a few years earlier, Merrow and his television crew spent some time at Lincoln Elementary School, an 800-pupil K-6 facility in Mt. Vernon, a rundown city in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Lincoln could have been another data set in the achievement gap story. About 70 percent of its students are black or Latino, and half of them qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

But instead, 98 percent of fourth-graders there read and do math at grade level or better — compared with a rate of 57 percent for demographically similar schools in New York state.

It was a story with several morals, said Merrow: Attract good teachers (the head of the science program is a former NASA consultant); develop the whole child (everyone takes music — and choral classes are taught by a professional opera singer); incorporate educational testing concepts into everyday life (the gym teacher, with a ball and a bucket, teaches about velocity); and do not micromanage.

Lincoln principal George Albano is cheerful, affectionate, and present — and hires good teachers and lets them work.

All this made Lincoln a place of joy, creativity, art, and music, Merrow said, because Albano “was trying to create an atmosphere where you don’t have to be a superhuman to be successful.”

Based on test scores alone — and the absence of violence in the school, he said, “the rest of the school system (should be) beating a path to [Albano’s] door to see what he’s doing.”

After the 2003 “NewsHour” story ran, Merrow said, Albano “got visitors from all over the world — but not from Mt. Vernon. … Schools are not learning from each other.”

He said studies show that schools that narrow or eliminate the achievement gap have just a few basic things in common. They have qualified teachers; safe and supportive conditions that allow children to perform; and “immediate intervention if kids start to fall through the cracks,” said Merrow.

If schools are managed the right way, students become part of a protective, achieving culture, he said. “The kids protect the environment.”

Part of the tragedy of the Columbine shootings, said Merrow, was simply a result of an unspoken school culture, one in which jocks had free rein “to stuff the nerds into lockers.”

At schools that work, by contrast, “affection takes many forms,” he said — including Albano’s habit of greeting children as they arrive for the school day and when they leave.

At the Fort Bragg school, where teachers are aware they are temporary parents of a sort, “the affection wasn’t tough love,” said Merrow, “it was love.”

He described one teacher there who looked out the window one day to see a rarity in North Carolina — flurries. Rubbing his hands together, he turned to his class and said, “Let’s go play in the snow.”