Closing the achievement gap between children with high and low incomes is an aspiration that few would quibble with. According to Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen there is evidence to indicate that, during the school year, children from low-income families learn at about the same rate as those from high-income families. So, you might say, if that's the case, we shouldn't have an achievement gap. Well, it turns out that, over the summer months, children from low-income families lose two or more months of growth in reading while those from high-income families gaina month. They suggest that those from low-income families live in what they call "book deserts"--books are are scarce as water is in the desert. Children from high-income families, in contrast, are immersed in what might be called "tropical forests" of books (and access to print media), where such resources are abundant, located in varied forms, and available in varied places.
So what is the solution? Well Allington and McGill-Franzen decided to find one. In a planned contrast study, they organized book fairs where 1000 children of low-income families were given 15 books of their choosing across a period of three summers. The children, in Grades 1 to 4, were not assigned any tasks such as book reports nor were they asked to answer any comprehension questions. They were merely given books...in short they were given access such that by the end of three summers 45 books of their choosing were literally at their fingertips. These children's reading achievement was compared to a similar group who were not given books.
The results of the study give one pause...The reading achievement of the children provided with books was raised about a half a grade level! All this at the cost of $50 USD per child per summer. As Allington and McGill-Franzen point out in their blog, "it is patently unfair to blame kids or their parents or their teachers for the rich/poor reading achievement gap."
Instead, we need to build on the efforts of parents and teachers of children from low-income families by getting books to children. Key factors to consider in such a program, according to Allington and McGill-Franzen, are: (1) letting students choose the books they wish to select, and (b) focusing on the early years of schooling. Such a program, because of its low costs, could be rolled out to many more children than would be the case for summer school types of programs. Cost effective, educational, and convenient...what more could one ask?