Mary E. Walsh

Support All Students to Close the Achievement Gap

City Connects

More than 16 million children in the United States live in poverty, which dramatically affects their ability to come to school ready to learn and thrive. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics' The Condition of Education 2013 (PDF) report shows that one in five schools was considered high poverty in 2011, an increase from one in eight schools in 2000.

Even the significant investment the United States has made in developing strong curricula and talented teachers is not adequate to ensure that all children can succeed. Research shows that only one-third of the achievement gap can be attributed to the quality of a student's in-school experiences. The other two-thirds is linked to the nonacademic factors that impact children, many of which are greatly exacerbated by poverty. These "out-of-school" factors can include hunger, homelessness, unaddressed medical concerns, violence, and lack of access to important enrichments like arts or athletics. The evidence is clear: until we address poverty, the achievement gap will persist.

How can schools, with their limited resources, address these barriers to learning? Traditionally, the approach has been through "student support," a catchall phrase whose definition varies from school to school and district to district. Typically, it encompasses the role of counselors. Often, only the most vulnerable and at-risk students receive the lion's share of the attention.

Student support can be approached differently, in a way that dramatically enhances its effectiveness. It works best when delivered in a comprehensive, systematic approach to each and every student in a school. Grounded in research on child development and the need that it be implemented as a core function of schools, optimized student support has six identifying characteristics. It is

  1. Customized to the unique strengths, needs, and interests of each student;
  2. Comprehensive, serving the academic, social/emotional/behavioral, health, and family needs of all students from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds;
  3. Coordinated among families, schools, and community agencies;
  4. Cost-effective to schools by leveraging the resources provided by community agencies;
  5. Continuously monitored for effectiveness through collecting and analyzing data to evaluate its effectiveness and improve service delivery; and
  6. Implemented in all sites with fidelity and oversight.

With these best practices in mind, and with the collaboration of Boston College, Boston Public Schools, and local community agencies, I led a team that created a systematic student support practice called City Connects in 1998. A full-time school site coordinator in each school works with teachers and school staff to review each and every child's individual strengths and needs in four areas: academics, social/emotional/behavioral, health, and family. Together, the coordinator and teacher identify the in- and out-of-school factors impacting students. Each student is then connected to a tailored set of community- and school-based services and enrichment activities most appropriate for their individual strengths and needs.

Systematically addressing out-of-school factors can help students achieve and removes the burden from teachers, allowing them to focus on delivering quality instruction. In an anonymous survey of teachers who work in City Connects schools, the majority reported that they are providing more differentiated instruction and rewards systems because they know more about their students. They are also more thoughtful and patient as a result of understanding more about their students' lives.

Evaluation of 10 years of data demonstrates that City Connects' approach to addressing out-of-school factors significantly improves academic performance and narrows the achievement gap. Students who attended City Connects elementary schools outperform their peers on standardized tests in middle school. They are less likely to be retained in grade, be chronically absent, and drop out of high school than students who were not in City Connects.

As City Connects' evidence shows, comprehensive student support is an essential component of any strategy aiming to close the achievement gap. Systematically addressing the out-of-school factors impacting students will give every child the opportunity to learn and thrive.

Mary E. Walsh, PhD, is the executive director of City Connects and the Kearns Professor of Urban Education & Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

Comments (4)


June 12, 2013

As an educator for 14 years, my experience resonates with your emphasis on the non-school factors.  I am now working with a team of educators and a professional film and tech crew to address this need to equip and inspire parents and other caregivers to understand the rigor of today’s schools and nurture thinking and language in the context of family and community.  Our new resource is called ReadyRosie and consists of a daily email to parents with videos of real English and Spanish-speaking families modeling 2 minute literacy or math conversations in locations like the car, laundromat, restaurant, bus, waiting room, etc.  The conversations are rooted in the CCSS but we model for parents how to play with the content in simple ways that do not require special materials. 
We are not ready to give up on families but we do know that schools need to improve the home-school connection.  We are choosing to reach parents where they are…on their phones or computers.  We would love your feedback and welcome you to view our free demo at


June 23, 2014

I believe that involvement of parents are the first and most important thing children need. But when it comes to an irregularity the way parents support their children, there will be a achievement gap. But that too, I think schools, with their efforts can really make the kids involved in studies as well as other activities and thus bring them up to a better person. The activities should be more involving but rather than it to be more competitive they should also make sure that even the participants are appreciated. This will give the children to get themselves involve in lots of activities and which will help them achieve great heights in the future. Recently, I came across a blog where it talks about Unique School Awards, it has got some great ideas for school. I’ve read it in the Hoult-Hellewell’s website.


January 18, 2015

Try not to take this as any kind of attack on the views of the author.  Instead, I hope that it will help us to identify opportunities as we take a realistic approach to closing the achievement gap.

About the article’s title –
Before I get too far into my comments, some readers may realize that the title of the article identifies conflicting objectives.  When we support all students, we are unlikely to make any significant, long-term reduction of the achievement gap.  The best way to close the achievement is to raise the performance of blacks while lowering the performance of whites. 

Just to clarify a few points in the article:
1. While it is true that school performance tends to improve as the parent’s income increases, it is also true that the IQ differences of black and white children remain with different SES.  Rich white kids outperform rich black kids while poor white kids outperform poor back kids.  (In some cases, poor white kids outperform rich black kids.)  Increasing the IQ of blacks (or whites or any other race/ethnic group) increases the probability that they will be able to get out of poverty.  And, of course, the IQ will still be there if the income is reduced.
2. The first point brings up the issue of causation vs. correlation, and what is the cause of what.  Rather than wealth being the determining factor in the performance of children, wealth is typically due to the higher IQ of the parents.  In the context of this article, what is the best way of permanently getting blacks out of poverty?  Answer: raise their IQ.     
3. The article states, “The evidence is clear: until we address poverty, the achievement gap will persist.”  Once again, it is the higher intelligence of the parents that greatly reduces the likelihood of their being in poverty and, also, raises the performance of their children.
4. Obviously all schools have limited resources.  However, once the intelligence of the students is raised, many of the issues requiring “student support” are, once again, greatly reduced.

So, what should be our plan to close the achievement gap?  How do we raise the achievement level of blacks and lower the achievement level of whites?

As most readers must know, there have been bunches of programs aimed at reducing the achievement gap.  If they worked, there would be no achievement gap and this article would not have been written.  But alas, dear reader.  Such is not the case.  There must be some reason that the programs have not been successful.  The most reasonable explanation for this lack of success is that the programs did not address the actual cause.

The vast, overwhelming number of programs attempt to close the gap by fixing the environment.  In reality, much more fruitful results would almost certainly be obtained by fixing the non-environmental cause. 

Okay dokey – so, what can be done to fix the non-environmental cause?  The best results would require a two-pronged approach:
1. We can increase the cognitive ability of blacks by finding ways to decrease the number of children of the less intelligent blacks and to increase the number of children of the more intelligent blacks.
2. We can decrease the cognitive ability of whites by finding ways to increase the number of children of the less intelligent whites and to decrease the number of children of the more intelligent whites.
To do this would require major changes in many government programs or even their elimination.


April 22, 2015

Great point about out of school factors needing to be addressed in this conversation. A 20-year study in 2010 showed that children coming from homes with 500+ books gained an extra three years of education. The achievement gap has been shown to be closely connected less access to books in poorer neighborhoods.The lifetime cost to society of a student dropping out of high school is $127,000. Spending that same amount of money on making sure students come from homes and neighborhoods well-supplied with books will help shrink the achievement gap. I have more on my blog:

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