Education Opinion

Throwback Thursday: The Achievement Gap

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 10, 2014 5 min read
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In 1983, EdWeek published an article entitled Achievement Gap Between Blacks, Whites Continues to Narrow. 30 years ago the achievement gap was measured and determined to be narrowing. If we were narrowing the gap 30 years ago, why haven’t we closed it by now? The achievement gap remains, arguably, our greatest educational challenge.

In 1983, there were those still questioning whether intelligence was inherited or developed. Even then, racism and test composition and results were interconnected. Notably, it was at that time the students who had attended public schools following desegregation were entering college. Regarding a study conducted by Lyle V. Jones, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

...the students who are now taking college-admissions tests are among the first to have received their entire education in integrated schools and to have participated in federal programs such as Head Start.

That link, although not an explanation for the shift is “consistent with the trends we’ve been seeing, so that desegregation in the school setting could contribute to the narrowing gap,” Mr. Jones said in an interview.

But, he added, “so many things have changed. We can’t point to the schools and say they did it.” Also contributing, he suggested, are factors such as the rising levels of income among black families and the possibility that black students’ motivation has improved because they now can realistically plan careers in fields once closed to them.

So, why have we slid away from progress? We can ask is whether we have been facing a racial achievement or an income achievement gap. There is a convincing relationship between those factors. But, the more essential... and abiding... question is what educators and policy makers do to close a long existing gap and include more students in a rich and successful public school experience. Once we know that answer and act upon it, we can ask, in fairness, what do parents and families need to do? The 1983 article also refers to the relationship between the number of math courses taken and achievement and recommends more math courses for children of color. Despite the curricular reforms of the 1980s, the “algebra for all” movements of the 1990s, and the advent of No Child Left Behind in the 2000s, there is still great variability in opportunities to learn higher mathematics in schools across the United States. Students attending predominantly minority schools still receive fewer opportunities to learn rigorous mathematics (Darling-Hammond, 2004; Tate, 1997, in a 2007 Educational Leadership article). In fact, in 2013, Arnie Duncan reported that

Black and Hispanic students account for close to 40 percent of high school students, but they constitute just over a quarter of students taking AP courses and exams, and only 20 percent of enrollment in calculus classes.

So, the finger does point at us. We are not preparing minority students for higher level math. How can this still be true if data have been clear for thirty years?

We want more students to be prepared to take additional and more rigorous courses in high school. But have we examined our own data about the courses taken and by whom as well how students are doing? There must be a plan for both creating stronger k-8 math programs, giving access to them, and institute an intermediate plan for those entering high school with lagging math and reading skills. (See our recent post on Partnering with Pediatricians). STEM elementary schools and middle schools may hold promise by offering welcoming and successful early math experiences. Schools that have tried are seeing success.

The point is the gap persists; it may have narrowed a bit after desegregation, but it is very much our present. We can look at data, agree or disagree with it, and attribute causality wherever our belief system takes us but we cannot deny that this societal and educational problem cannot last another thirty years without dire consequences. The majority of students who achieve and enroll in higher level math and science courses are from middle and upper income families and they are white. Schools in higher income areas have higher graduation rates and our cities, where there are large minority populations, have much lower graduation rates. We don’t need any more data to tell us what we already know.

In May, 2014, Heather Schwartz reported in EdWeek:

As the three Education Week figures attest, racial and economic inequalities in schooling remain stubbornly large even 60 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. The gap in average test scores between white and black children is still substantial, but fortunately it has diminished in size since 1960. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between children from the highest- and lowest-income families has substantially grown over the same period. The income achievement gap is now about twice the size of the black-white achievement gap.

As a country, we have done an extraordinary job of educating children. We have increasingly included more and more children of varying abilities and capacities. Everyone is welcome. With our open doors, comes a responsibility to meet the needs of all who enter. That is a monumental challenge. We always want more for our students. And we have changed much in the way of teaching and learning but little has narrowed the gap.

On this #tbt, let’s focus on this mission: discovering and providing the best possible ways to support students, to prepare them, and to offer them new experiences that narrow the gap. In doing so, we will be offering, and requiring, teachers to create environments in which they can do new and exciting work. This century has brought along newly diverse populations and previously unthinkable technologies. Before we get to the tipping point, perhaps we should be seriously thinking about shifting the system...and then, maybe before another 30 years pass, we will see the gap evaporate.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2004). The color line in American education: Race, resources, and student achievement. DuBois Review, 1(2), 213-246.
Tate, W. F. (1997). Race-ethnicity, SES, gender and language proficiency trends in mathematics achievement: An update. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 28(6), 652-679.
Walker, Erica N., Why Aren’t More Minorities Taking Advanced Math? Educational Leadership November 2007 | Volume 65 | Number 3


On Thursdays, we highlight an issue that was making headlines 20 years or more ago. We examine the status of that issue today and wonder with our readers about what has changed and what has not. We welcome feedback and ideas.

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