When Schools Close, the Knowledge Gap Grows: Both Low-Income and Middle-Income Children Use Public Libraries Heavily in Summer. but What and How Much They Read Threatens to Expand, Not Reduce, the Achievement Gap

By Celano, Donna; Neuman, Susan B. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2008 | Go to article overview

When Schools Close, the Knowledge Gap Grows: Both Low-Income and Middle-Income Children Use Public Libraries Heavily in Summer. but What and How Much They Read Threatens to Expand, Not Reduce, the Achievement Gap


Celano, Donna, Neuman, Susan B., Phi Delta Kappan


Teacher quality? Class size? Parental involvement? Educators have proposed many answers to the achievement gap puzzle. However, the solutions are masking the true problem: The achievement gap is not the real gap threatening our nation's children. There is another, more pernicious gap, one that endangers any hope of equalizing student achievement.

This gap is rooted not in the classroom, but in the learning children do outside of school, including after-school hours, weekends, holidays, and summer breaks. Living in the Information Age, children today gain a remarkable amount of knowledge through their daily reading of books, computers, and other materials on their own time. The information produced each year is astounding. According to one source, the amount of digital information created, captured, and replicated just in 2006 was 161 billion gigabytes. This is about 3 million times the information in all the books ever written. (1)

This knowledge filters down to children, but in unequal parts. Many children, particularly children from poor communities, live in information-poor neighborhoods, where a lack of resources means they have little access to much information. In a previous study, we found that many poor children have little access to any print materials, including books, newspapers, and magazines. For example, book availability for middle-class children was about 12 books per child; in poor neighborhoods, about one book was available for every 355 children. (2) Poor children traditionally have less access to computers as well. Although computer and Internet use is booming, low-income children are less likely to have access to a computer at home than are their more advantaged peers. (3)

The result of unequal access to information is a steadily growing knowledge gap between rich and poor children. The knowledge gap, we fear, is fueling--and overshadowing--the achievement gap. Without closing one, the other will not go away.

EQUAL ACCESS, BUT NOT EQUAL USE

The answer seems simple: Give all children equal access to books, computers, and other information sources and the knowledge gap should close. Not so, we have found. Even if poor children are given equal resources, they do not use materials in the same way their wealthier peers do.

Our research starts at the one place that offers all children, rich or poor, equal access to information: the local public library. The nation's public libraries fill a tremendous need by providing print, computers, and other materials to many underserved populations. With more than 95% of all public libraries offering Internet access, about 10% of all Internet users now gain access to the Internet through a public library. (4) And even though poor children are less likely to have computers in their homes, the number of poor children who have frequent access to the Internet through a school or the library is growing steadily. (5)

Physical access to a computer, however, does not always guarantee a growth of knowledge. Van Dijk worries about a "usage gap" and speculates that even when we close gaps in physical access to computers and the Internet, we are still left with "unequal practices in the way individuals use them." (6) People with a high level of education, for example, use e-mail and more information, education, work, business, and shopping applications than less educated people. Those with less education use far more entertainment applications. (7)

We have found similar results with providing children access to books and computers. In a previous study, we documented differences in the way children from different income levels used information sources such as books and computers. (8) Children from low-income neighborhoods, we found, used just as many resources but often gravitated toward materials with less print and lower reading levels. For every one line of print read by low-income children, middle-income children read three. …

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