When he was a young teacher in southeast Riverside County, Templeton Unified Superintendent Joe Koski supervised a program where some students who were struggling with reading were pulled out of class and given intense reading instruction.
Koski recalled being very pleased with the results — until he asked other teachers for their opinion of the program.
“What I heard from them was that students were farther behind (their class) at the end of the eight-week period than at the beginning,” Koski told a group of educators gathered Wednesday for an annual education forecast hosted by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education and Cuesta College.
The problem, Koski realized, was that the students who stayed in class were still receiving high-quality teaching and increasing their skills at a faster rate than their lower-performing peers, regardless of the intervention program.
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“The program helped,” Koski said. “But compared to the other peer group, they fell behind.”
Many of the students came from low-income families or were learning English as a second language.
This achievement gap remains, year after year, a challenge and top priority for many school districts, including districts in San Luis Obispo County. Students living in poverty or those whose native language is not English often score lower as a group in standardized testing than their more affluent peers.
“The performance of these groups has improved but so has everyone,” county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said.
San Luis Obispo County students continue to score above the state average on annual tests assessing student performance, Crocker said.
Still, English-language learners are scoring up to 55 percent lower in academic achievement than their peers, and those considered economically disadvantaged are scoring up to 20 percent lower.
Crocker said to narrow the divide, educators and district administrators must have high expectations for all students, provide quality teachers who carefully monitor student progress, have ongoing teacher training programs, and provide access to quality preschool.
Other educators at the gathering mentioned programs such as transitional kindergarten — designed as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten for students who turn 5 years old between Sept. 2 and Dec. 1 — and more intensive teacher-training initiatives as ways to bring at-risk students’ scores closer to their peers’ performance.
Koski said he believes the issue is more of a “life experience gap,” between children from lower-income homes or with less-educated parents than children of wealthier professionals.
Recent research published in Developmental Science found that at 18 months, children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew much faster than children from low-income families.
The new findings, according to an article in The New York Times, reinforced earlier research showing that children of professional parents hear 30 million more words by age 3 than those from low-income households because professional parents speak more to their children.
“We have to focus and determine how to close the experience gap between those two (groups),” Koski said.
Jim Hogeboom, superintendent of the Lucia Mar Unified School District, said the impacts of poverty can be seen through the difference in test scores at two South County schools.
At Ocean View Elementary in Arroyo Grande, where 26 percent of students qualify for a free-and-reduced lunch program (a measure of poverty), the school scored 898 on the Academic Performance Index (API) in 2013, a measure of academic performance based on testing that ranges from 200 to 1,000.
By comparison, 92 percent of students qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program at Oceano Elementary, which had an API score of 764.
“That to me is the bottom-line challenge,” Hogeboom said. “How do you combat effects from poverty?”
He said better access to preschool and technology would help. The district has partnered with the YMCA to offer preschool programs on several of its campuses, but Hogeboom hopes to do more.
He also mentioned a teacher training program at six district schools that give teachers more frequent feedback and lesson-planning opportunities.
Curt Dubost, superintendent of San Miguel Joint Union School District, struck a more optimistic tone.
“The instruction in classrooms now is better than it ever has been,” he said. “Students are not allowed to sit in the corner and be quiet and get away with it.”