Researchers can’t offer a definitive explanation for the achievement gap, but they’ve developed a host of theories, some more widely accepted than others.
More minorities live in low-income families than do whites, and growing up poor is a well-known obstacle to learning. But poverty can’t explain the lagging academic performance of minorities in all cases; even schools in middle-class communities struggle to close the performance gap between whites and others.
Study after study has shown that compared to whites, a disproportionately small number of African American and Hispanic students take challenging academic courses. The reasons vary. Some schools rigidly track kids into such courses, using test scores or grades to winnow students and ensure that only the best get in. Other schools open tough courses to anyone, but minority students choose not to enroll. And in some urban schools with predominantly minority enrollments, there are only a handful of Advanced Placement offerings—if any.
In 1986, researchers John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham described how low-achieving black students view peers who do well in school as “acting white.” The phenomenon has been widely documented since then, but it’s still highly controversial. Some experts now contend that peer pressure may be more of a symptom of the achievement gap than a cause: Students may disparage peers simply because they’re ashamed of their own poor performance.
It’s well known that schools with large numbers of poor, immigrant, or migrant children have higher turnover than others. Obviously, kids who jump from school to school find it hard to keep up. But research has also shown that instruction slows for all students in schools with high rates of turnover. In one 1996 study of Chicago schools with transient enrollments, researchers found that by 5th grade, instruction was almost a year behind that of schools with more stable populations.
Because evidence of the achievement gap is found even in tots just entering kindergarten, some experts are looking at differences in parenting styles as a potential cause. Researchers, however, don’t know enough about parenting practices in the early years of childhood to come to any firm conclusions.
Minority children have less access to good preschool and day-care programs. The New York City-based College Board notes that in 1996 only 63 percent of African American parents with young children enrolled them in preschool. The figure was only 36 percent for Hispanic parents.
New research indicates that children in schools with many minority and poor students are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers. Those findings are emerging just as other studies are beginning to quantify the damage that an ineffective teacher can do. Research by William Sanders and his colleagues at the University of Tennessee suggest that three consecutive years of bad teachers can significantly hamper a child’s learning over the long run.
In the early 1990s, Stanford University sociologist Claude Steele found that black students performed worse on standardized tests when asked to identify their race. Steele theorized that minority students scored low because they were anxious that they would do poorly and confirm negative stereotypes about their race—a phenomenon he tagged as “stereotype threat.” Steele suggested that such anxiety-ridden students may react defensively and downplay the importance of an academic task. No one has tested this idea in precollegiate classes, but some experts say it could explain why average scores are low for black students on some standardized tests. It also may explain why they are sometimes reluctant to take advanced classes.
Teachers are taught to believe that all children can learn, but their classroom experiences sometimes convince them otherwise. According to some experts and parents, veterans of teaching low-achieving minorities eventually come to expect less of these students than others and discourage them from taking advanced classes. Research, however, is thin on whether teacher expectations create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for minority students.
In a study of more than 3,000 children released last year, black and Hispanic children spent an average of three to four hours a day watching television, compared with an average of two hours and 22 minutes a day for white children.
Experts once blamed much of the achievement gap on an inherent bias in standardized tests against African Americans and other minorities. That bias may exist, researchers say today, but its effect has been exaggerated. “If any parent is worried about the tests being biased and then gets a chance to see what’s on the tests, most would say, ‘This is stuff I would like my kids to know,’ ” says Meredith Phillips, co- author of The Black-White Test Score Gap.
In 1994, a fiercely debated book called The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, resurrected the explosive suggestion that achievement differences among racial groups stem from genetics. Since then, the notion has been widely refuted by scholars from a range of disciplines. Six years later, however, The Bell Curve still casts a shadow over discussions on the achievement gap.