Student Readiness to Achieve: Decreasing the Achievement Gap

06/19/2014  |  By Don Perras

 The implementation of national Common Core Standards is a major initiative to address the persistent achievement gap plaguing public schools across the country. While a noteworthy goal to improve students’ test scores, educators are confronted by decades of inadequate academic performance.  Reversing the historical dilemma of chronic school failure requires a concerted effort to reverse this unfortunate pattern. Decreasing the glaring achievement gap depends on changing students’ perception of learning. A shift in attitudes is essential to boost their commitment to achieve, a serious challenge in communities with depressed accomplishments. Unless students’ school readiness is dramatically altered, this mandate will be compromised. Ultimately, this task compels educators to master instructional skills and classroom management techniques to succeed with diverse learners, especially in districts with static  progress.


In response to students’ readiness to achieve, and an expanding population of at - risk and special education learners, reliance on traditional instructional practices must be evaluated.  Commitment to antiquated teaching formats, like lecturing, will negate attainment of anticipated Common Core outcomes.  Strategies effective with prior generations of more homogeneous students will prove ineffective in today’s classrooms defined by varied social - cultural backgrounds. Worksheets, rote memory, drills, and question - answer interactions, among others, have minimal potential for reaching predetermined achievement criteria. Therefore, educators must apply an array of creative instructional procedures to maximize students‘ success with Common Core Standards.


Innovative instructional practices must become the norm to accommodate the entire spectrum of students’ learning capabilities. Beside those with accelerated achievement histories, a majority of students should benefit from research - based methods that promote grade - level expectations. Those with special education plans, by contrast, will have remedial procedures to attain prescribed goals. Inclusion programming must adjust their methodologies and staff roles to reflect curriculum modifications and assessment options. Finally, social - behavioral deficits will complicate instructional progress, especially with adolescents. Proactive classroom management strategies are imperative to prevent contamination of the learning environment. 


Three ‘tiers,’ or levels, of differentiated interventions are required to complement students’ specialized academic needs. Tier one represents traditional grade - based learning goals and activities for the most functional learners.  For example, a review of vocabulary in 7th - grade science consists of student teams writing definitions linked to a power point module on ‘ecology.’  This assumes that the format and content are suitable to students’ maturity and skill. Assessments include typical quizzes, tests, and projects.  Tiers two and three involve tweaking the same material, but with simplified requirements and adjusted outcomes for at - risk learners. By contrast, a personalized worksheet of vocabulary and definitions is provided, peer mentors are assigned to assist, and staff offers individual supervision. Grading incorporates multiple assessment tasks to maximize students’ unique developmental profile. 


A universal format to employ Common Core Standards should follow a lesson template containing an initiation, content introduction, engagement, discussion, and closure. Following this template will objectify the learning process across all subjects and grades, regardless of a community’s achievement status. A sample scenario illustrates this format:


 Ms. Flores’ 3rd – grade class is studying a unit on Native Americans in social  studies.  Within the class of 21 students, five have special education needs.  Lesson initiation involves a 5 – minute task to color pictures of Native Americans’ clothing. A 15’ - power point introduces an overview of Native American customs. Students work with partners on computers to investigate the topic.  Conversations  during  a 3 – minute closure summarize the lesson, while homework is discussed.


Beyond specific subject - based curriculum content, all instructional presentations will include group activities, technology, interactive projects, and multi -modality materials. These strategies parallel students’ four basic learning styles:  mastery, interpersonal, self – expression, and understanding. Mastery exemplifies the desire to acquire fundamental knowledge, the essential motivation to achieve. Targeting affective tendencies links students’ judgments toward academics, which also taps their creativity and problem – solving skills. Understanding promotes critical thinking and eventual conceptual awareness.


 Dr. Jefferson’s dynamic graphic design class is extremely popular with his 12th- grade students who excel at creating innovative projects incorporating all four learning styles. Computer programs are utilized to explore different structures (mastery), which are produced as three – dimensional models (self – expression).  Cooperative teams are required to encourage ‘interpersonal’ preferences.  Hypothetical community problems are presented quarterly to stimulate ‘understanding.’ 


A final consideration to address instructional decisions involves two significant factors that influence attainment of Common Core Standards.  First, students, regardless of ability or temperament, resist passively learning information of minimal personal relevance. Knowing state capitals, or memorizing math formulas, for instance, implies a reliance on using repetitive practice to acquire basic facts. While valuable, this approach fails to appreciate the impact of electronic stimulation consuming today’s learners.  Distractibility, disengagement, and disruptive behavior are routinely evident in these lessons. This ultimately depresses the inherent purpose of learning information in a one – dimensional format. 

Second, the sheer effort required to achieve personal excellence is typically underestimated by students. The ability to remain on task during instruction is a challenge for many students lacking self – control, a serious impediment to boosting academic progress.  Seeking instant gratification inadvertently depresses curiosity and persistence. Completing a thirty – minute science lab, or listening to a lecture for forty minutes, by example, competes with students’ natural desire to socialize and avoid work.  With intensive academic pressures to succeed, students’ achievement ethic must be factored into teaching practices. 


Mr. Stein’s undergraduate preparation failed to address the social – cultural – racial dynamics he experienced during his initial position teaching 9th – grade English at a large urban school.  He appeared insensitive to students’ socialization needs and apathy toward lectures and note – taking.  As misbehavior became excessive, Mr. Stein resorted to collaborative projects, group presentations, and homework assignments requiring artistic representations of novel characters and plot summaries. A dramatic increase in class participation and respectful interactions developed following his transformation. 


Classroom management becomes critical to integrate the multiple aspects related to Common Core Standards.  Instructional expertise is insufficient to change students’ response to rigorous academic demands, particularly in grades 7 – 12.  Learners with chronic school failure, feelings of alienation, and immature social – behavioral development will either blatantly disrupt lesson presentations, or commit minimal energy to perform.  Ignoring this responsibility usually impedes students’ improvement, while simultaneously deflating the professional investment to implement unfamiliar strategies. As this percentage of students continues to increase nationally, management skills are paramount to diminishing achievement gap issues.


A minimal system of proactive management consists of applying the following techniques:

  • an outlined agenda of lesson activities posted along the left board frame with estimated times to finish tasks

[ alerts students to expectations / time limits ]


  • a digital timer set for each lesson component to maintain focus 

[ improves attention to task by ‘chunking’ lesson into segments ]

ex:  Reading 

       1 ~ finish chapter review graphic organizer = 20’

       2 ~ write critique of primary characters = 15’


  • colorful class rules separately displayed across top of board frame

[ establishes behavioral expectations to motivate self – control ]

 ex:  COOPERATE  (large block letters / sample student photos )


  • reinforce compliance with rules to teach appropriate conduct 

[ encourages necessary accountability to learn ]

 ex:  verbal recognition, weekly celebrations, monthly certificates 


It is also imperative that educators express a confident, assertive, and enthusiastic demeanor to blend instructional initiatives in conjunction with 

management interventions. A flexible, disciplined, and compassionate mindset is mandatory to engage learners to master their new requirements, most obviously at the secondary level.  Ultimately, the interpersonal communication between teacher and student will decide the success of Common Core Standards. 


The future of national endeavors to decrease students’ achievement deficits will incorporate a commitment to apply Common Core Standards across all demographics. Following these Ecological Model recommendations will facilitate any educator’s quest to pursue that goal. 


Donald Perras, Ph.D. has been an educator since 1967.  As an associate professor of special education at Southern Connecticut State University for 42 years, he prepared more than 6,600 teachers to become conscientious practitioners of their profession. He specializes in programs to help educators deal with students who have serious emotional disturbance (SED) and related behavior disorders.  In addition to his current consulting work, Don continues as an adjunct professor at  University of St. Joseph in West Hartford. For more information, visit
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