Close the Achievement Gap: 5 Specific Strategies

Barbara R. Blackburn and Ron Williamson

A key facet of instructional leadership is addressing and closing the achievement gap. There are two reasons that principals should lead the charge to close the achievement gap. First, it is the right thing to do. Every single child who enters our buildings deserves the right to learn and have the opportunity to succeed. Second, we are held accountable for closing the gap by the No Child Left Behind Act and by every state achievement initiative.

In Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices (2003), Belinda Williams identified four needs of students. We’ve added one more:  creating a personalized environment.


Needs of Students

1.           Access to challenging curriculum and instruction

2.           High-quality teachers

3.           High expectations

4.           Extra support


Provide a Rigorous Learning Environment

Those needs are best met when you and your faculty provide students with a rigorous learning environment. Let us be clear about our definition of rigor. First, center your attention on quality, not quantity. Rigor is not about increasing the number of homework problems assigned. True rigor does more with less, preferring depth over breadth. Next, rigor is not just for your advanced students. Rigor is for every student in your building. That includes your students who are at risk of failure, your students with special needs, and your students for whom English is not their native language. Finally, the heart of authentic rigor is learning, not punishment. It is about growth and success, not failure. Your focus should be on how you can inspire your teachers to lead their students to higher levels of rigor in a positive, productive manner through expectations, support, and instruction (Blackburn, 2018).


Provide a Personalized Learning Environment

It is important that students feel connected to their school. There is strong evidence that when a student has a supportive relationship with a single adult in school, he or she is more likely to stay in school and to achieve at higher levels.

In elementary school, the classroom teacher often serves that function. In many middle and high schools, an advisory or advocacy program is often included. Typically, the program consists of a small group of students assigned to one teacher who monitors their progress in school and talks with them about academic and social issues.

Some schools create a more personalized environment by organizing into smaller units.  We worked with an elementary school that had multi-grade wings for long-term personalization.  Many middle schools organize into interdisciplinary teams in which every teacher on a team teaches the same students. The teachers work together to create a learning environment that is supportive of their students.

Many large high schools are adopting a small “school-within-a-school” model. Students and teachers are organized into small units, often built on a curricular theme. The goal is to create a more personalized setting in which students are well known by teachers and to develop a supportive connection with school. Often support staff such as school counselors and assistant principals are assigned to each small school.

Within the classroom, personalized instruction has increased in popularity. This allows you to customize instruction to the particular needs of individual students.  Other teachers use differentiated instruction to address needs, but typically in smaller groups.  These organizational models simply create the potential for a more personalized environment. It is essential that teachers get to know their students well and commit to building personal relationships with each student.


Hire and Retain Quality Teachers

There are endless suggestions for closing achievement gaps and increasing rigor in schools. Given these challenges, where do you start? Begin by hiring only the most skilled teachers and evaluate and work with those teachers who are less skillful.

As you hire, it’s important to standardize the hiring process. Following a standard process ensures that you will treat everyone who applies in a uniform manner. Your district may have some of these procedures in place. If not, you will need to create them for your school.

First, develop your selection criteria. Each criterion should be relevant to the work to be performed and should be free of bias so that everyone is treated the same throughout the process. If you need someone who is bilingual, include that on your list. However, as you plan, differentiate between those skills or characteristics that are required and those that are simply desirable. Make sure you have addressed relevant employment law and that you always document thoroughly. All criteria should be available for review.

Next, create and use a protocol for interviews. The questions should be linked to your selection criteria, and they should be open-ended to provide in-depth information about the candidate. After you draft your questions, assess them to be sure you avoid any questions that are unlawful.

Finally, follow your process.  In some cases, you may realize early in the interview that a person is not the best fit for the job. However, respect the candidate and the process and finish the interview. After you hire someone, be sure to send a written follow-up note to all candidates, notifying them that they did not get the job and thanking them for their interest in the position. A little courtesy goes a long way at this point; it never hurts to be nice, even to those you aren’t hiring.

Once teachers are hired, assign your most talented teachers to your students with greatest need. Avoid pressure to assign the “best” to the most capable and highly talented students. But at the same time, provide a balanced set of students, and classes, to avoid the potential for burn-out.


Develop High Expectations

We know that high expectations drive students (and teachers).  If we expect students to achieve at high levels and provide the support for them to do so, they will be successful.  Having high expectations starts with the recognition that every student possesses the potential to succeed at his or her individual level.

Almost every teacher or leader I talk with says, “We have high expectations for our students.”  Sometimes that is evidenced by the behaviors in the school; other times, however, faculty actions don’t match the words. There are concrete ways to implement and assess rigor in classrooms.

Encourage lessons that incorporate more rigorous opportunities for learning, you will want to consider the questions that are embedded in the instruction. Higher-level questioning is an integral part of a rigorous classroom. Look for open-ended questions, ones that are at the higher levels Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or other questioning frameworks.

It is also important to pay attention to how teachers respond to student questions. When I visit schools, it is not uncommon to see teachers who ask higher-level questions. But for whatever reason, I then see some of the same teachers accept low-level responses from students. In rigorous classrooms, teachers push students to respond at high levels. They ask extending questions. Extending questions are questions that encourage a student to explain their reasoning and think through ideas. When a student does not know the immediate answer but has sufficient background information to provide a response to the question, the teacher continues to probe and guide the student’s thinking rather than moving on to the next student. Insist on thinking and problem solving.

However, there are times that teachers have lowered expectations, perhaps subconsciously.  For example, teachers may say “He’ll never be an A student; he’s from THAT neighborhood”, or “I don’t know why I’m surprised, she’s a special ed student.” Work with staff through professional development to identify high expectations and to change behavior so that words and actions convey those expectations. Also work with teachers and district staff to modify curriculum and improve instructional expertise focused on adding rigor and challenge to the program.


Provide Support for Students

Finally, high expectations are important to closing the achievement gap, but the most rigorous schools assure that each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels. It is essential that teachers design lessons that move students to more challenging work while simultaneously providing ongoing scaffolding to support students’ learning as they move to those higher levels.

Providing additional scaffolding throughout lessons is one of the most important ways to support your students.  Oftentimes, students have the ability or knowledge to accomplish a task but are overwhelmed at the complexity of it, therefore getting lost in the process.   This can occur in a variety of ways, but it requires that teachers ask themselves during every step of their lessons, “What extra support might my students need?” 

This may occur in a standard classroom, or in one that is personalized or differentiated.  Scaffolding strategies such as the use of graphic organizers, mentor texts, modeling, the concrete-representational-abstract method, academic discourse, and vocabulary strategies are essential.


A Final Note

Closing the achievement gap is a complex challenge that will not be solved easily.  However, by providing a rigorous learning environment, personalizing learning, hiring quality teachers, demonstrating high expectations, and incorporating support and scaffolding in lessons, you can make an impact. 


About the Authors

Barbara Blackburn was named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education in 2016, 2017, and 2018. She is a best-selling author of 18 books including Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and Motivating Struggling Learners:  10 Ways to Build Student Success. An internationally recognized expert in the areas of instruction, rigor, student motivation, and leadership, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development on-site and via technology. Barbara can be reached through her website. Follow her on Twitter.

Dr. Ronald Williamson teaches courses in the principalship, school law, ethics and politics of education. He previously worked as a building level and central office school administrator in Michigan, as Executive Director of the National Middle School Association, a member of NASSP's Middle-Level Council and President of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, a coalition of all the major professional organizations serving middle schools.

Dr. Williamson is the recipient of the Gruhn-Long-Melton award from NASSP in recognition of lifetime achievement in middle-level leadership, the Teaching Excellence Award from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and the Alumni Teaching Excellence Award at Eastern Michigan University. The author of over 150 books, chapters, papers and articles in all the major professional journals serving schoolteachers and administrators, Dr. Williamson is recognized as one of the major advocates and researchers in the field of middle-level schools. 





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