Addressing the Readiness Gap

Bernard P. Pierorazio, Superintendent
Yonkers Public Schools
New York State Superintendent of the Year 2011

Superintendents must be uncompromising in their commitment to student success. Regarding this endeavor, it is important to recognize that family is the first school and parents are the first teachers (Barton and Coley). Thus, children enter school with unique experiences and at different stages of learning readiness. With this in mind, it is a superintendent’s responsibility to secure an educational environment that meets the needs of all children and insures the development of student abilities and skills that go beyond compliance to achievement. As Horace Mann observed in the 1800s, “Education … is the great equalizer of the conditions of man, - the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” It is, therefore, critical for superintendents to implement different methodologies that address the student readiness gap.

In order for education to be “the great equalizer,” it is critical for a superintendent, as the leader of a school district, to develop awareness of how the essential aspects of literacy and learning are strongly influenced by formative vocabulary that is taught in the home. Citing Professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, the Educational Testing Service emphasized how differences among families in early language acquisition and literacy development are critical to cognitive development and school achievement (Barton and Coley). Hart and Risley engaged in a comprehensive study of differences in vocabulary development, the causes of such disparities, and how a child’s learning arc is impacted. In a long-term comparative observation of well-nurtured children and their families, including those of professional, working class, and welfare backgrounds, Hart and Risley discovered a 30-million word gap that occurred by the time the children in the study were three years old. In addition, these researchers found that at this early age, children used language in much the same way as their parents. The recorded vocabulary size of children from professional families was 1,116 words, the vocabulary size of children from working-class families was 749 words and the vocabulary size of children from welfare families was 525 words (Hart and Risley). Of further concern, Hart and Risley saw an “ever-widening gap” that reflected the existing vocabulary differentiation and the slower accrual of new words among children from welfare families (Hart and Risley). This study emphasized the link between school-age learning and pre-school cognitive experiences, neurological stimulation, and behavioral interactions.

A few years ago, the Summer Institute at Harvard, which provides opportunities for superintendents to learn from talented professionals, presented ideas about student achievement gaps. Harvard Professor Ronald F. Ferguson discussed his work “Toward Skilled Parenting & Transformed Schools, Inside a National Movement for Excellence with Equity.” His evaluation of large cohorts of students showed that the higher the level of a mother’s education, the greater the occurrence of family members reading books to a child. Additional research in the field examined the correlation between pre-school vocabulary and academic success in school (Pappano). These studies reinforced the findings of Hart and Risley.

A superintendent must then develop strategies to address the gap in student readiness. One means by which the Yonkers Public Schools engages the issue of vocabulary as it relates to writing and reading literacy is through the District’s emphasis on universal pre-kindergarten. An internal District comparative analysis of current fourth graders who had been enrolled in pre-kindergarten, as opposed to current fourth graders who did not start school until kindergarten, revealed that students who had been enrolled in pre-kindergarten achieved higher scores on the New York State English Language Arts, and Mathematics Examinations than those who started school in kindergarten.

The Yonkers Public Schools reevaluated and reorganized its existing facilities to further enable student achievement, engaging in a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade restructuring as well as the establishment of additional high schools. The pre-kindergarten through eighth grade reorganization bodes well as the District changed the paradigm of the traditional grade alignment, and eliminated building transitions that often thwart student achievement. Such reconfiguration also allows for more significant academic growth at the middle years level, especially in comparison to the traditional middle school population. An evaluation of middle school standardized test scores for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade buildings evidenced an increase in English Language Arts results, with moderate growth at the seventh and eighth grade level. In addition, mathematics scores increased by six percent at grade six, ten percent at grade seven, and two percent at grade eight.

While pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is important, it is also vital to invest in higher graduation rates. Allotting funds toward an increase in the number of graduates is money well-spent, affording an asset to the individual and the community (Levin et al.). A study entitled “The Cost and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of America’s Children,” completed by educators from Teachers College-Columbia University, City University of New York, and Princeton University, concluded that these benefits not only include personal income, government revenue, and the resources to further invest in education, but also lessen societal costs that relate to health care, criminal activity, and public assistance (Levin et al.). To achieve higher graduation rates, the Yonkers District extended the smaller, focused learning environments, evident in the elementary and middle grades, to the high schools. The goal of smaller learning communities is for each high school child to be known by building staff, for no child to “fall through the cracks,” for all children to engage in academic success and the completion of high school diploma requirements, and for every student to realize a post-secondary education. In this process, the Yonkers Public Schools realized that smaller learning communities necessitated the addition of more high schools. To create smaller learning communities and meet varying student needs, the number of Yonkers public high schools increased from five to nine.

A high school where students focus on science and the environment was introduced, graduating its first class in 2011. In conjunction with the College Board Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a Yonkers College Board Preparatory Academy opened its doors. The District also added the first Montessori pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade public school in the nation as well as an Early College High School, linked through articulations to local colleges, that gives each student an opportunity to earn college credits, and, potentially, an Associate’s degree.

A superintendent must recognize that the achievement of school district goals requires leadership that is synonymous with learning and excellence. To encourage such leadership, the Yonkers Public Schools specifically collaborated with the McRel Institute by co-sponsoring a series of workshops that concentrated on administrative self-reflection and growth while highlighting the twenty-one characteristics of excellent building-level leadership. The District accepts Professor Ferguson’s explanation of school-wide achievement as dependent on such leadership. Ferguson additionally emphasized that school leaders should evaluate data that can be utilized to identify achievement gaps, show results, and debunk misperceptions. The American Association of School Administrators’ “Leadership for Change” also agrees with Professor Ferguson, concluding that data is essential to the improvement of learning, teaching, and stakeholder involvement (11). In this regard, astute superintendents engage input from schools and the community. Toward this end, and to focus on professional development, the Yonkers Public Schools conducts monthly workshops for District assistant principals and aspiring administrators. Groups of administrators have also attended the National Leadership Workshop, sponsored by the College Board to train leaders of tomorrow. By culling leaders from the administrative ranks, a district is assured of future success. Through the Yonkers District’s Academy for Learning Leaders program, a special effort is made to identify and recruit future administrative role models from the diverse population of Yonkers Public Schools teachers.

In addition to administrators, the District emphasizes classroom leadership, staff expertise, and professional development as methods of positively impacting student accomplishment. A systematic and collaborative approach toward professional development, with staff members participating in workshops, training sessions, and conferences, resulted in raised standards, enriched curriculum, and differentiated instruction. It is critical to create an environment of “close-knit” professionals. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains how teachers who are surrounded by outstanding teachers will accept challenges, no matter how difficult. The District identified a number of pedagogical initiatives to target staff development and ensure that every classroom teacher has the tools to enable and encourage student success. In a cooperative effort with New York University Metro Center, the District integrated “Learning Walks” as part of the daily school routine. This model, developed by Lauren Resnick of the University of Pennsylvania, is a non-threatening review of classroom instruction that gives administrators a general picture of staff development needs. “Learning Walks” correspond to the popular mantra espoused by educational guru Peter Senge, “You cannot expect what you don’t inspect” (“Improvement Planning: Developing Goal-Achieving Strategies that are Monitored and Evaluated”). Classroom leadership and staff expertise, enhanced by professional development, help to ensure the fulfillment of student potential.

Through the application of a diverse knowledge base as well as innovative, collaborative and persuasive enterprises, and reflective decision-making, a superintendent empowers all students. The American Association of School Administrators often cites that leadership also requires knowing when to step back, when to engage, and when to confront the challenges that call for courage. In this regard, school professionals should be unrelenting advocates for all students. Realizing that children enter school with unique experiences and at different stages of proficiency, education must be “the great equalizer.” It is the responsibility of superintendents to recognize and address the gap in student readiness, sustaining a learning environment where all students, regardless of entry level, continue to achieve excellence.

Works Cited

American Association Of School Administrators. “Leadership for Change.” Arlington,Virginia: AASA, 2006.

Barton, Paul E., and Richard J. Coley. “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” Educational Testing Service, Sept. 2007.

Ferguson, Ronald F. “Toward Skilled Parenting & Transformed Schools, Inside a

National Movement for Excellence With Equity.” (Oct 25, 2005) 18 May 2011. < 71_Ferguson_paper.ed.pdf>.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown And Company, 2002.

Hart, Betty, and Todd R. Risley. “The Early Catastrophe, The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” AFT Publications: American Educator (Spring 2003) 11 Oct. 2006.  <>.

“Improvement Planning: Developing Goal-Achieving Strategies that are Monitored ad  Evaluated.” Kentucky Department of Education. (Oct 24, 2007). 20 May 2011. <…>.

Levin, Henry et al. “The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of  America’s Children.” Teachers College, Columbia University. (Jan 2007) 20 May 2011. <

Pappano, Laura. “The Power of Family Conversation.” Harvard Education Letter. 24:3 (May/June 2008) 18 May 2011. < 194>.