Chapel Hill: Opinion

To close the achievement gap, build a three-legged stool

Ken Larsen
Ken Larsen

The “achievement gap” is the observed scholastic disparity between white/Asian and black/Latino students. The gap is huge and has existed since measurements were first taken 50 years ago. Efforts to close the gap have failed. In fact, the gap has been getting wider.

In their effort to address the achievement gap, the Education Committee of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP is doing what I regard as building a one-legged stool. They’re only addressing one part of the issue. They’re placing their whole focus on racism. They are neglecting the academic and pre-school sides of the issue. They need to build a three-legged stool.

In 2015 the Education Committee put together a coalition of local groups called the “Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools.” It convened many times and developed a well researched 87-page document entitled “Excellence with Equity: The Schools our Children Deserve.” It delineates 45 recommendations for what school leaders can do to curb racism.

Eradicating racism will certainly improve student scores, because students will feel more welcome and confident. However, comfort and confidence are not enough to yield high scores on chemistry, physics, Englis, and math. Only hard study can produce success. This is the second leg of the stool.

To build this second leg of the stool, I advocate that a study be launched to explore the habits of the highest and lowest achievers. What are each doing that can explain their successes and failures? The lowest achievers need to emulate the practices of the highest achievers.

Studies have shown that 50 percent of the achievement gap is already evident by the time a child enters kindergarten. This segment of a child’s life needs to be examined. You can’t blame K-12 teachers for that shortcoming. This is the third leg of the stool.

The pre-school achievement gap has been attributed to the depth of the parent’s vocabulary and how often they use words of encouragement versus words of discouragement. See this New York Times article ( It is clear that better parenting is needed to build this third leg of the stool.

With a three-legged stool, I believe that the achievement gap can be closed. With a one-legged stool, it may fester for another 50 years. The children deserve better.

Sidebar: Amusingly, there has been one instance in history where a one-legged stool was the best solution. In the 1800s Alfred Nobel used a one-legged stool to solve a safety hazard. At his nitroglycerine plant, a worker had the boring task of slowly mixing some chemicals. If he nodded off during this task, the chemicals could explode. To keep the worker awake, a one-legged stool was employed. If the worker fell asleep, he would tip over and be awakened.

We’re not mixing explosive chemicals. We’re trying to help children succeed. We need a three-legged stool.

Ken Larsen lives in Chapel Hill.