Education Opinion

The Eternal Achievement Gap

By Walt Gardner — April 08, 2016 2 min read
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It’s important to retain hope in the face of daunting educational odds, but I think it’s equally important to be realistic. I’m referring now to the persistent black-white academic achievement gap (“What Matters For Student Achievement,” Education Next, Spring 2016).

The 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report serves as the starting point. Contrary to popular belief, the report never said that schools don’t make a difference. Instead, it said that schools have little influence on the difference in average achievement between black and white students. That is a crucial distinction lost in the current debate. Schools certainly matter, but they are not Lourdes. They are relatively ineffective compared with family backgrounds in overcoming the average academic disparities between black and white students.

Perhaps that’s why there have been only modest improvements in narrowing the achievement gap since 1965. I’ll let readers access the article I cite above for the statistics. But if they are accurate, the vast resources invested in public schools over the past five decades have produced disappointing results overall. (Notice that whenever the discussion involves the achievement gap, we are talking about average performance. There will always be exceptions. That may seem obvious, but it’s a point too often forgotten in the debate.)

If family backgrounds are the primary factor in understanding the achievement gap, then I wonder why so much attention has been paid to poverty and so little to culture? I say that because the Coleman Report referred to poverty only once. Yet today it is considered to be the most important factor. I’m not saying that poverty doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But why do so many Asian students from low-income families consistently perform so impressively?

Whenever I suggest taking individual responsibility for one’s future, I’m accused of being insensitive and disrespectful. But Thomas Sowell underscored my point when he wrote that “many disparities arise simply because people are different, and because they make different choices” (“The March of Foolish Things,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 4, 2015).

That’s why I believe that the academic achievement gap will always exist. For example, New York State reported that although the high-school graduation rate hit an all-time high, the gap between the races persisted. Specifically, 88 percent of white students graduated on time last year, while only 65 percent of black and Hispanic students did (“New York City’s High School Graduation Rate Tops 70%,” The New York Times, Jan. 12). We can try to narrow the gap, but in the end it is the result of differences, not only within groups but between groups.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.