CSI Literacy NZ

What Thanksgiving taught me about the achievement gap

What Thanksgiving taught me about the achievement gap

“It’s 1967 and the world is going to hell.”

Pretty dramatic start to an article, right?

It’s from a column I read. I’ve made it a habit to read a column every morning, and this one was from Washington Post writer, David Von Drehle. It made me think, “Wow … 1967. 2017. They’re the same.”

The column is actually a reflection about Thanksgiving, and how Drehle was “steered to an understanding that happiness is not something we acquire. It’s a muscle to be exercised, a habit to be formed.”

I loved this statement enough on its own, but then came the The Big Whammy (or in literacy jargon you’ll be more familiar with, the “important idea”):

“Over the past two decades, researchers have confirmed [that] … In studies of adults and children — even patients with debilitating diseases — expressions of gratitude have been found to ease depression, lower blood pressure and foster a sense of well-being. Grateful people are more likely to exercise regularly and sleep soundly.”

Bear with me here, but all this talk of gratitude made me think about those of us in education and how easy it is to get sucked into a vortex of hand-wringing. How easy it is to feel dismayed at the system, the statistics, and the students being failed and underserved.

Just look at what’s going on here in New Zealand, where the gap between reading levels of rich and poor is one of the widest in the OECD. 2014 figures from our Ministry of Education showed that, in our little country, 93,707 kids cannot read at the expected level. There has been a steady decline in the proportion of students achieving “at” or “above” the national standard.

It’s 2017 and the world is going to hell.

But wait. What if we exercise our happy muscles – can we turn this on its head?

Let’s see.

Here are a few things I’m grateful for:

  • I’m grateful and proud that in New Zealand we have the highest number of good readers in the OECD.
  • I’m grateful for you teachers who do the hard yards to raise achievement.
  • I’m grateful for you teachers who show every day that we can lead the world.
  • I’m grateful that our entire educational community is busting our chops to close the achievement gap.

And it can be closed. Here are a couple of things we can start doing right now.


3 ways we can close the achievement gap

1. Challenge and support every student

We all thrive on a good challenge – true?

Every student – every single one – not only needs to be challenged, but supported to meet the challenge. Support can be from their parents, siblings, friends, peers … and from you, their teacher.

Here’s a simple example: because we want students to meet higher standards, we should challenge them to read tougher texts – but with support. Once we’ve found a complex, engaging text, we should model and teach them explicitly how to read and understand that text. We should have students talk with us, and each other, about their struggles.

2. Set goals

Actually, don’t set goals. Collaborate with your students, and have them set goals. (The trendy name for this is “co-designing the curriculum”.)

If students set goals for themselves, with your guidance and support (as well as their parents), they will be more committed, resilient, and successful. By sharing the learning intentions and the success criteria, there’s both an achievement outcome and a pathway to that success that is shared by all.

3. Give feedback

As your students strive to reach their goals, let them know how they’re going.

Be explicit, and don’t be soft on achievement. That doesn’t mean being punitive.  Demonstrate that mistakes are fine – we all make them and they guide our next steps in learning. Be real and be honest, or you will lose the respect of the student who knows the goal and needs your support to achieve it.

Celebrate progress, but celebrate achievement even more!


There’s one last thing I’m grateful for: I’m grateful to be able make my contribution to closing the achievement gap.

How about you? Let’s celebrate yours!



About the author 

Neale Pitches is the founder of CSI Literacy and a former teacher, principal and CEO of Learning Media. 

Neale presents internationally on literacy and school leadership, and was honoured by the Queen in 2003 for his contributions to New Zealand education.




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