Closing the Achievement Gap: Making the Case for Customized Curricula through Online Learning for K-12 Students

by Marcella Gadson on August 14, 2014

Online LearningLet’s face it: There is no silver bullet to closing the educational achievement gap. Students’ needs are as varied as their backgrounds, cultures, socio-economic status, unique family situations, and individual learning abilities. How do we simultaneously raise the nation’s overall educational standard so that we remain globally competitive, while closing the vast educational gaps that exist between different communities within our own borders?

The solution may lie in the capabilities of online learning to deliver customized curricula to fulfill our students’ unique educational needs.

Where Are the Gaps?

Occupation gap: The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has projected that STEM-related occupations (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) will account for 8.6 million jobs by 2018, growing by 17 percent from 2008. By comparison, non-STEM occupations will grow by just 9.8 percent over the same period.

Education gap: Similarly, the U.S. ranks 48th worldwide in math and science education, according to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. In an increasingly global job market and economy, this early educational gap places K-12 students who, overall, lag far behind students in other countries, at a disturbing disadvantage. African American and Hispanic students in particular lag far behind their white counterparts in educational achievement [??} in general, and especially with respect to STEM education, making it difficult for them to compete for jobs in the high-growth STEM sector.

Mirroring or perhaps contributing to other gaps (such as wealth and income), when achievement within the U.S. is broken down demographically, African American and Hispanic students fare the poorest. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an average of only 26 percent of American 12th grade students scored at or above the Proficient level for mathematics in 2013. When broken down by race, 33 percent of white students scored at or above the Proficient level, while 12 percent of Hispanics and 7 percent of African Americans did. These early disparities in educational proficiency place African Americans and Hispanics at a severe disadvantage when it comes to opportunities for success once they reach adulthood.

Customized Curriculum Offers Opportunity

BBSJ has previously reported on the success of virtual schools, particularly in Florida, the first state to offer full-and part-time options to K-12 students. Today, 31 states and the District of Columbia have statewide, full-time online schools, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

There are a variety of options available for students who wish to study online, from public and private schools, to fully online versus blended curriculum environments. According to K12­, a company that provides many states and school districts with their online learning programs, online programs benefit a multitude of students, including:

  • Struggling students who may need to work at their own pace or in an environment with fewer distractions
  • Advanced learners who grasp concepts quickly and find themselves bored in the classroom
  • College- and career-minded students
  • Homeschoolers
  • Military families
  • Athletes and performers

Each of these groups and others have unique needs that can be customized in an online learning environment, where they can work with a teacher to design their own curriculum and work at their own pace.

Many virtual schools start as early as Kindergarten, initially with heavy parental/guardian oversight and involvement, and with more focused, self-directed study for students by high school.

Distance Learning and the Digital Divide

Although online learning offers a range of opportunities, those in low-income communities still face a range of barriers, such as a lack of computer, Internet connection, or parent with the time or capability to effectively monitor student performance. Parents of children with such limitations will need to research the offerings in each district, as many offer programs to help disadvantaged students.

In Washington, D.C., the Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS) Online offers books, materials, and a loaner computer system for students who do not have access to one at home. The program also boasts of “a variety of instructional models to meet each student’s unique learning style, including independent learning, teacher-supported courses, and teacher-led courses,” a testament to the flexibility afforded by online learning programs. While DC CAPCS is a free program for students residing in the District of Columbia, online programs also exist in private schools for families who can afford it.

In Florida, the Multicultural Education Alliance, Quatro Solutions, and Bright House Networks teamed up to provide students with specially designed eBOLT tablets to enhance their learning experience.

The K12 website offers a comprehensive search feature highlighting the nation’s many online learning programs, each of which varies by state and/or school district.

Barriers and Solutions to Bridging the Gap

We’re still searching for a complete solution to bridging the achievement gap. While online education shows promise, it requires a full commitment of 4-5 hours per day for parents of K-5 students and a few hours per week for monitoring of older students. In low-income communities, which are often single-parent households, this may not be a viable option. Even for families with parents who have the time, they may not have the resources to provide the proper commitment or broadband connection necessary to facilitate a truly effective online learning environment.

The Obama Administration has made it a priority to bring U.S. students on par with the rest of the world, and to close the achievement gaps within the nation. The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council has long advocated for reform to the E-rate program, which provides funding to schools and libraries so they can provide high-speed Internet access to students and communities. Most recently, MMTC and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition filed a letter with the Federal Communications Commission, urging the Commission to end E-rate caps that favor affluent schools and penalize public schools. Days later, the Commission adopted comprehensive reform to the program, approving subsidies now going toward Wi-fi connectivity to ensure broadband access in schools.

Between 21st century technology, government initiatives, public-private partnerships, and advocacy from public interest groups, a solution to bridging the education gap may be within our reach. As President Obama stated in January, “Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard…But it’s worth it – and it’s working.”

  • Marcella Gadson is the Editor in Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).

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