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Closing the achievement gap: a new vision for making it happen

If we are to realize Minnesota’s potential to lead and succeed in the 21st century, we must address the health and education disparities that limit the ability of our children to succeed in school.

For Minnesota’s schools to address educationally relevant heath disparities in a strategic and coordinated way as part of the overall strategy to close the achievement gap would be courageous.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Imagine every student in Minnesota graduating and going on to post-secondary education. It is possible. Closing a district’s achievement gap requires a coordinated, data-informed approach that, in addition to academic reforms, also considers the many non-academic factors that can contribute to school success. 

Craig Wethington

Despite compelling evidence linking health and academic achievement, too few districts implement initiatives to reduce educationally relevant health disparities as part of their strategies to close the achievement gap. A recent review by Charles E. Basch of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University presented a persuasive case for why educators must address non-academic barriers to learning in order for students to achieve. He argued that no matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, no matter what accountability measures are used, no matter what governing structures are established, educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not motivated and able to learn. He identified seven priority areas that play a significant role in limiting educational progress.

  1. Vision — Visual problems are estimated to affect 20 percent of youth and impacting their ability to learn.
  2. Asthma — Uncontrolled asthma affects approximately 14 percent of youth under 18 years old and is the leading cause of school absenteeism.
  3. Teen pregnancy — One in three American female adolescents will become pregnant and 30 percent to 40 percent of female teenaged dropouts are mothers.
  4. Aggression and violence — Aggressive behavior disrupts both teaching and learning. Many students avoid school because of bullying and fear.
  5. Physical activity – A large percent of students do not meet minimum recommended levels.
  6. Breakfast – Many students do not eat breakfast on any given day.
  7. Inattention and hyperactivity (ADHD) — An estimated 8.4 percent of school-aged youth have a diagnosis of ADHD, with many more exhibiting symptoms that are below established diagnostic criteria but nonetheless adversely affect teaching and learning.
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Urban minority youth from low-income families are disproportionately affected by all of these problems. These health issues seriously impede motivation and ability to learn through at least five causal pathways: sensory perception; cognition; connectedness and engagement with school; absenteeism; and drop out. Significantly, many of these problems occur in clusters, creating additive effects. 

A coordinated approach to school improvement

Too often, programs and initiatives designed to address these factors fall short of their goals because they are piecemeal, rather than comprehensive and coordinated. Studies funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health and conducted by the American School Health Association found that many districts’ efforts to address these needs are often not successful because of several factors:

  • Failure to address non-academic barriers as part of school improvement plans.
  • Insufficient data on non-academic barriers.
  • Limited understanding of the relationships between academic success and non-academic barriers.
  • Lack of a sustainable, functional process for engaging families and community partners.
  • Inadequate professional development for teachers and support staff.
  • Outdated policies.
  • No district-level coordinator to shepherd and institutionalize the process.

Without attention to these elements, there is frequently no culture to support improvement initiatives, and often no urgency to sustain them because there is little community buy-in or involvement. Schools cannot address all of the conditions that produce these problems, but proven and promising approaches do exist and can help close the achievement gap. 

A comprehensive and coordinated approach that meets students’ academic and non-academic needs is by its nature multifaceted and complex. Programs and services must be coordinated:

  • Between elementary, middle, and high schools;
  • Across instructional, services, and policy domains,
  • Across prevention, intervention, and treatment; and
  • Among school staff, families, and community partner

Without this coordination network, schools lack the resources to effectively address the multitude of interconnected health and safety needs that affect students’ ability to learn.

Shared long-term commitment between school and community

For too long, the impact of students’ health and well-being on academic achievement has been underestimated. Rarely have the non-academic barriers to learning been integrated with school improvement initiatives. But when they have, the results have been surprising:

  • Higher academic achievement
  • Increased staff satisfaction and decreased staff turnover
  • Greater cost savings and increased efficiency
  • Positive school climate
  • Strong school-community culture that promotes and enhances student success

For Minnesota’s schools to address educationally relevant heath disparities in a strategic and coordinated way as part of the overall strategy to close the achievement gap would be courageous. Strong schools support a strong community. If we are to realize Minnesota’s potential to lead and succeed in the 21st century, we must address the health and education disparities that limit the ability of our children to succeed in school. Now is the opportune time to work toward this goal.

Craig Wethington is a resident of Minneapolis and a consultant for Health and Learning Associates. Wethington brings over 15 years of public health experience in state government and nonprofit organizations addressing critical educational and health issues, particularly those that support the health and wellness of young people and their families. Prior to locating to Minnesota, Wethington was an assistant director for the Office of Safety, Health and Nutrition at the Ohio Department of Education.

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