What You and Your School Can Do to Help Fight It

What You and Your School Can Do to Help Fight It

I wrote the below article for BookNook Learning. It was originally published January 31, 2019.

What is the Opportunity Gap?  The term “opportunity gap” refers to any significant and persistent differences in academic performance between different groups of students. Groups are based on categories such as ethnicity, race, gender, disability, and income. Opportunity gaps are typically measured by standardized tests and there are evident gaps in test scores among many different groups of students. Test score gaps often lead to longer-term gaps, including high school and college dropout rates as well as employment as an adult. The National Education Association has found that, “Despite decades of overall progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, disparities in educational outcomes related to poverty, English language proficiency, disability, and racial ethnic background still persist.”

Learn more about the students affected by opportunity gaps on the National Education Association website.

The Opportunity Gap in Regards to Reading: There are few instructional tasks more important than teaching children to read. The consequences of low achievement in reading are costly to both individuals and society as a whole. Low achievement in literacy correlates with high rates of school dropout, poverty, and underemployment (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Wagner, 2000). The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show that more than 6 out of 10 U.S. 4th graders are not reading at grade level. For low income students in high-poverty schools that statistic jumps to 8 out of 10 students reading below grade level.

Up until the end of third grade, most children are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade, however, they are reading to learn, using their skills to gain more information in subjects such as math and science, to solve problems, to think critically about what they are learning, as well as reading to learn for pleasure. Up to half of the printed fourth-grade curriculum is incomprehensible to students who read below that grade level, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation.

The National Research Council asserts that “academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.” As policymakers, parents, administrators and teachers are searching for answers to help solve the reading gap, a single catch-all instructional program or method that is effective in teaching all children to read does not seem to exist yet. Though there may not be a one size fits all literacy curriculum, Bond and Dykstra’s research (1967/1997) has confirmed that regardless of the quality of a program, resource, or strategy, it is the teacher and learning situation that truly make the difference.

Importance of Early Intervention: The truth is, the opportunity gap starts widening before children even have the chance to enter the kindergarten classroom. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, “The achievement gap happens when there is a preparation gap in a child’s earliest years.” Organizations such as First 5The Children’s Reading Foundation and Avancebelieve strongly that educating families and providing high quality early childhood education are critical in closing the opportunity gap. 

Early identification and intervention with young students, who are struggling with reading, has been proven to help them gain the skills they need to close the reading gap between themselves and their grade level peers ( Vaughn, Wanzek, Marray, Scammacca, Thompson, Woodruff, 2009). Even when students are not reading words yet, you can predict who will have trouble by assessing their ability to identify letters and produce letter sounds. Though some students do not respond as quickly to reading intervention as others, it has been proven that the earlier a child has a solid foundation of phonemic awareness, the better off they will be as a reader long-term. Becoming a more fluent reader and acquiring comprehension skills will be easier for students who have acquired strong foundational reading skills and have the tools to work through decoding new words.

This issue does not just have an impact on our nation’s literacy rate, it also has an impact on our economy. Economic research by Nobel Prize-winners and Federal Reserve economists, in economic studies in dozens of states and counties, and in longitudinal studies spanning 40 years—demonstrate that the return on public investment in high quality childhood education is substantial (Calman, L., Tarr-Whelan, L., 2005). In The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, they found that every dollar invested in quality early childhood care and education saves taxpayers up to $13.00 in future costs. These savings can be attributed to reduced costs from lowered crime rates, decreased welfare payments and less funds dedicated toward repeat students or special education curriculums.

How Schools Can Work Towards Closing the Opportunity Gap: The Anne E. Casey Foundation, which published Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and A Research update on Third Grade Reading suggests focusing on the below factors that contribute to third grade reading proficiency:

School Readiness – Help families prepare their children for kindergarten. Research continues to show that fewer children from low-income families (less than half) are ready for school at kindergarten entry, compared to three-quarters of children from families with moderate or high incomes. For children from low-income families, preschool attendance is one of the strongest factors in school readiness; attending a high-quality early childhood program also predicts higher levels of achievement at age 11. A followup study of the Abecedarian Project found that by age 30, participants were four times more likely to obtain a college degree than nonparticipants. Entering school ready to learn can improve one’s chances of reaching middle-class status by age 40. And a study of the Child-Parent Center program found a long-term return to society of $8.24 for every dollar invested during the first four to six years of school, including prekindergarten.

School Attendance – Missing school has negative effects on student success. A report by Johns Hopkins University researchers suggested that the national rate of chronic absenteeism is 10 to 15 percent, meaning that 5 million to 7.5 million students miss at least 10 percent of their school days every year. The premise that schools fail to detect high levels of chronic absence because of data issues was confirmed by a study conducted jointly by the Child and Family Policy Center and Attendance Works. Other studies confirmed that chronic absence has a negative effect on students’ academic performance and cognitive development, especially for children from low-income families.

Summer Learning – Prevent “Summer Slide” and provide programs and resources that help keep students engaged and learning over summer. Studies of summer learning programs in several different contexts all confirmed that high-quality summer programs can disrupt learning loss. Research on children from low-income families also offered new evidence that having access to books can decrease the effects of summer learning slide and significantly improve scores on state reading assessments; the largest effects were for the most economically disadvantaged children.

Family Support – Provide parent education that will empower parents to better support their children. Research published right before Early Warning helped explain how environmental factors like hunger, housing insecurity, parental depression and abuse influence the epigenome (the human “operating system”), making it more likely that specific genes will or will not be expressed. Other new research draws a link between the stress of poverty, hormonal changes and impaired learning ability. However, new research reveals that even after the epigenome has been modified by extreme childhood stress, the damage may be reversed. Furthermore, positive social-emotional experiences for young children, along with supportive family and community environments, reduce the likelihood of negative modifications to the epigenome that might impair learning.

High-quality teaching in home, community and school settings. New research underscores the importance of enriched home learning environments and parent engagement in preparing children from low-income families to succeed in school. A five-year study of more than 1,850 children and their mothers found that children whose learning environments were of consistently low quality were much more likely to have language and literacy delays before kindergarten, while supportive home learning experiences could help close the school readiness gap. The Alliance for Early Success (formerly the Birth to Five Policy Alliance) published a policy framework tool that provides options for improving learning, health and family support for children from birth through age 8, with a priority on children from low-income families and other vulnerable populations; a U.S. Department of Education guide for educators recommended strategies to help students in kindergarten through third grade understand what they read; the American Federation of Teachers published a summary of strategies for improving the transition from child care, preschool and home settings to school; and a report by the Center for American Progress proposed reforms to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of public investments in early childhood education.

Another way for schools to get more parents involved is to provide resources at the school, becoming a “full-service community school.” Full-service community schools help remove barriers by locating, partnering and coordinating local service providers that offer:

-Primary health, mental health, and dental care
-Family engagement, including adult education
-Preschool Learning
-Academic Enrichment
-Expanded after school learning time or summer programing
-Postsecondary education and career option awareness

Additional strategies from the National Education Association (NEA) for Closing the Opportunity Gap at Your School or District

In conclusion, the opportunity gap is a serious issue that has an impact not only on a child’s academic success during grade school years, but also their chances of graduating from high school and college as well as employment as an adult. Research shows that early intervention and providing resources to families help fight the achievement gap. Your school can help close the opportunity gap by offering parent education on how to help their child be prepared for kindergarten, hold families accountable for their child’s attendance at school, provide summer learning programs to prevent summer slide, offer parent education to help empower parents in supporting their child’s learning and work towards becoming a full-service community school that provides resources for families, encouraging them to be more involved with school and see school as a positive and helpful community for not just their child, but their whole family. There are countless organizations that are continuing research on this topic and searching for ways to better support students, their families, their teachers and their schools and there is an endless list of action items you as a teacher or administrator can take on to help fight the opportunity gap at your school. Spreading the word about the opportunity gap and how to close it as well as aligning yourself with like-minded colleagues and organizations is a great place to start. The opportunity gap is a complex issue, but consistent small steps towards closing it will add up.


Bond, G.L., & Dykstra, R. (1997). The Cooperative Research Program in First-Grade Reading Instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 348–427.

Calman, L., Tarr-Whelan, L. (2005). Early Childhood Education for All: A Wise Investment. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/workplacecenter/docs/Full%20Report.pdf.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2017). 2017 NAEP National Achievement-Level Results for Grade 4. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/nation/achievement?grade=4.

National Education Association. http://www.readingfoundation.org/reading_research.jsp.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Edited by C. Snow, S. Burns, and P. Griffin, Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. Retrieved from https://ed.psu.edu/goodling-institute/policy/special-report-executive-summary.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2013). Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-EarlyWarningConfirmedExecSummary-2013.pdf.

The Children’s Reading Foundation. School Readiness. Retrieved from https://www.readingfoundation.org/school-readiness.

The Children’s Reading Foundation. Third Grade Reading Success Matters. Retrieved from https://www.readingfoundation.org/third-grade-reading-matters.

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Murray, C. S., Scammacca, N., Thompson, S. F., & Woodruff, A. L. (2009). Response to early reading intervention: Examining higher and lower responders. Exceptional Children75(2), 165-183. https://doi.org/10.1177/001440290907500203.

Wagner, D.A. (2000). EFA 2000 thematic study on literacy and adult education: For presentation at the World Education Forum, Dakar (April 2000). Philadelphia: International Literacy Institute.