Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap

We hear about the achievement gap, or the word gap, and then we expect public schools to fix these situations. Solutions in the past have included extending the school day, increasing expectations through common standards, and holding schools and educators accountable for student learning through high-stakes tests.


However, these gaps were created before many students even took their first steps through the school doors. Teachers and school leaders become the scapegoats for these societal ills that really demand a larger and more complex conversation as a country. Yet being the people that educators are, they roll up their sleeves and quietly serve not only as teacher but also as counselor, parent, community outreach coordinator, and social worker.

Focusing on gaps creates problems. First, this work takes a deficit-based approach, where students lacking knowledge or skills can be viewed as less than capable than their higher-achieving peers. Subsequently, the students on the high end of the achievement spectrum receive less support and are not adequately challenged because of the shift in resources. Also, the gaps are related to the core academics – literacy and numeracy – which means that a school’s focus becomes exclusively on these disciplines. All of these problems creates one big problem: Teachers have to teach to the core middle in the hope that “every child succeeds” based on expectations that outsiders deem as proficient.

In a recent commentary for Education Week, Dr. Kimberlee Everson, an assistant professor of education at Western Kentucky University, paints a different picture of what really is the problem in schools today with regard to gaps between minority student or students living in poverty and their more affluent peers. Titled “True Opportunity is About More than Access”, Everson pushes for public educators to consider what students and their families really need today, tomorrow, and in their foreseeable future.

I propose that all children have the right to find and follow their passions; be inspired by creative, motivated teachers; and have sufficient time and opportunity for developing relationships.

Although the professor doesn’t come right out and say it, what she is describing is engagement. Many thinkers in education have provided their definition of this abstract concept. Here’s mine: Students are engaged when they are both highly interested in and committed to their learning pursuits. They have some level choice and voice in their school experiences and are motivated to persevere in the face of challenges that occur.

Students explore Scratch, a computer coding application, and Makey Makey, a web-based circuit building kit.

This definition applied to schools today would require some significant change to a majority of instruction in classrooms. Teachers would have to let go of some control. Principals would need to find better ways to assess student learning. Districts would be expected to provide more time for collaborative teacher planning and less time and funds on prescribed curriculum. In short, the learners would inherit the schools.

Everson asks some thought-provoking questions in relation to this different approach to education.

Are we certain that what the world needs is more than 50 million public school children who meet the same academic goals? Is it possible that true opportunity is the opportunity to develop specific expertise? Might the success of a nation, in the fact of a future that no one can predict perfectly, rest on the diversity in educational goals – in the same way that biodiversity ensures the success of a species?

We need to view education beyond the traditional mindset as a disseminator of knowledge and skills. Diversity in approaches can enhance the overall learning experience. Our students’ needs and interests demand that we rethink school as more than just a source of information.

Easier said than done. Certain teachers are already doing this work but largely in isolation. They don’t want to be called out by their colleagues and supervisors for veering too far off the predetermined script. This is why it is vital that school leaders support these innovative efforts using the tools and authority given to them. To start, instructional leadership teams can make a collective decision to allocate a certain part of the school day for allowing everyone in the schoolhouse – teachers and students – to explore their interests.

What if teachers had some room left over in their teaching day for sharing their own passions with the children? What if one teacher taught students chess, another taught watercolor painting or filmmaking, and another shared an interest in the mechanics of flight – and what if none of those subjects was part of the “core” curriculum? What would happen? Would the opportunity gap for children widen or would it narrow? Would teachers, and thereby, children by more excited about coming to school each day? Would general academic performance improve?

What are your first feelings when you read this passage? Excitement? Fear? Curiosity? This is what I felt as I read this part of the commentary. Everson does not offer specific recommendations for how this might happen in a school. And how could she: Everyone’s passions and needs are different, and every building has a particular approach to how learning is facilitated based on their culture and community. In my next post, I will share how our school is addressing student engagement and trying to close the opportunity gap.


Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

10 thoughts on “Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap”

  1. I look forward to hearing about how your school is approaching student engagement to close the gaps. I think making connections with students’ backgrounds, prior knowledge and interests is essential. I am excited to hear Everson’s proposal. I look forward to the day when the learners are at the centre of the curriculum and these conversations become redundant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great blog post! As a teacher I struggle often with following the district’s curriculum while simultaneously having my students follow their passions and build skills through studying and reading about topics that they find interesting. When students have a voice they are definitely more engaged and I can’t wait to hear more about ideas on how I can do this.


  3. Thank you for sharing this intriguing and inspiring blog post. As a teacher, I always struggle with following the curriculum, yet having my students stay engaged by following their own passions. I look forward to learning more about this!


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