The achievement gap —  it’s one of the biggest issues facing American education today. When we talk about this issue, and we often do, the conversation seems to focus around resources. When we talk about the “haves” and the “have nots” what we often talk about them having is “stuff” — like books, and computers and iPads. We think of the expanding role of technology in teaching 21st century learners and we get swept away by gadgets and teaching technology and forget about one of the most important education resource of all — time.

The NEA Foundation recently released a report aimed at refocusing our priorities. The report asserts that the best tool we can use to close the achievement gap is time, and that ELOs are the answer to leveling the playing field and providing a high quality learning experience for all students.

What are ELOs?

ELO stands for “expanded learning opportunity.” These opportunities are the ones that occur outside daily classroom activity. The Afterschool Alliance, a clear expert on the subject, described ELOs as events that,

“help improve outcomes for children by providing expanded academic enrichment and engagement, leveraging community resources to offer instruction and experiential learning opportunities in core and other subjects. ELOs incorporate strategies such as hands-on learning, working in teams and problem-solving to contribute to a well-rounded education. Services may be delivered through a variety of approaches, including afterschool, before school, summer and extended day, week or year programs.”

ELOs are as diverse as the students they benefit.  Still not sure what they are? Here are a few examples:

  • afterschool programs
  • math, science and art camps
  • community learning events
  • online courses and learning games
  • summer reading programs
  • family “field trips” to museums
  • or any event where learning happens outside formal classroom settings!

In short, ELOs level the playing field by giving 21st century learners more time to engage and learn. Students who require more attention or who work at a slower pace than their peers aren’t pushed out the door when the bell rings.

Who Holds the Power to Close the Achievement Gap?

In addition to highlighting the benefits of ELOs, the NEA report placed an emphasis on teachers’ unions — claiming that unions are the driving force that can utilize ELOs to effectively close the achievement gap. Why do they think that unions hold the key? Here are some of the reasons they provided:

  • Unions can ensure that summer learning programs and academic standards are aligned  to the broader turnaround strategy linked to academic outcomes;
  • Summer school and regular year teachers must work collaboratively to design the summer learning program from design to implementation; and
  • Unions can provide or advocate for effective professional development for summer school teachers, critical to ensuring high-quality implementation.

To illustrate their point, NEA provided three examples or “real-life ELO programs involving union and district collaboration.” Not surprisingly, one of the examples to share the spotlight was the work being done by Pittsburgh Public Schools.

How Pittsburgh Public Schools Are Closing the Achievement Gap

So what exactly makes Pittsburgh Public Schools such a shining example of working to close the achievement gap? In one word — collaboration. Through the hard work of teachers, administrators and community partners, Pittsburgh Public Schools used stimulus funding to create a large-scale ELO — the Summer Dreamers Academy. Although the process was a true collaboration, the NEA believes it was the work of teachers unions that provided the backbone of the program’s success:

“Although the initial idea to address summer  learning loss came from district administration, it  was the teachers who led the development and implementation of the summer curriculum. With teacher leadership, the curriculum was tailored  to the needs of the students, targeting specific skills gaps. In addition to curriculum development  and implementation, teachers also comprised the  majority of the camp leadership team. During the summer academy, teachers led the morning core academic sessions and ensured that academic standards were infused into the enrichment activities led by the community organizations in the afternoon.”

In addition to the work being done by Pittsburgh Public Schools, the NEA also highlighted the work of Springfield Public Schools and Kuss Middle School, located in Fall River, Massachusetts. To read more about how teachers unions worked to implement ELOs and close the achievment gap in those areas, read the full NEA report.

The achievement gap isn’t a simple problem to solve. If it was, we wouldn’t still be talking about it and looking for solutions. But as the NEA’s report illustrates, there certain programs and practices that can move us closer to a leveling the playing field. In the eyes of the NEA, the key to providing a solid education for all 21st century learners is viewing time, and teachers unions, as the most valuable resources at our disposal. Do you agree that ELOs have the power to close the gap? Do you think teachers unions should be the major driving force putting these ELOs into action? Share your thoughts on Spark’s Facebook page, or tweet your opinion to @SparkPgh.