Cultural Issues: The Achievement Gap

Education has long been considered the great equalizer in American society and is viewed by many as the cornerstone of American meritocracy. Our country has long believed that providing free public education will help level the playing field for K-12 students--creating opportunities across income, racial, and ethnic groups.

The Coleman Report

The debate over the influence of cultural factors such as income level, race, and ethnicity on educational achievement has a long history, beginning with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. Plaintiffs in the case argued that segregation inevitably led black students to achieve less than their white counterparts, which in turn led to the Supreme Court ruling that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. Ten years after that ruling, Congress ordered a study to determine whether African-Americans still attended inferior schools and whether that kept achievement levels low. Advocates for the disadvantaged hoped the study would prove a causal relationship between inferior schools and lower academic achievement--and lead to additional funding for those schools. It was one of the first studies to examine inequities in the education system, and the results were not so straightforward. James S. Coleman, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who conducted the study, found that differences between schools had little impact on achievement relative to other factors, including a family’s socioeconomic background and the social composition of the schools. The 1966 Coleman Report was the first significant study to link educational achievement with socioeconomic and cultural factors. Since then, a growing body of research has demonstrated that achievement is a result of a complex combination of factors--and that the achievement gap can only be addressed through a variety of strategies.

Cultural and Environmental Factors

Differences in School Readiness

To take full advantage of school between kindergarten and 12th grade, children must be well prepared to enter school. Income and social class significantly influence school readiness, and parental involvement and engagement plays a critical role in student success at every step of the education process. Studies have shown that higher-income, more-educated parents encourage their children to read more and read to their children more frequently. According to one study, higher-income children are exposed to more words between birth and age five. The researchers found that professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, while working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare recipients spoke 600. As a result, the children of professionals had a vocabulary 50 percent higher than middle-class children and twice that of children on public assistance. Higher-income parents also speak to their children differently--asking probing questions when they talk or read to them. Overall, higher-income parents encourage their children more frequently, have higher expectations of their children’s school performance, are more comfortable challenging teachers and school personnel, and are more able to help their kids with homework. The combination of all these factors results in dramatically different levels of school readiness by children of different economic backgrounds and can affect achievement at every grade level.

Health and Environmental Factors

Poor health is another major issue that can affect school performance among low-income students. They have vision impairments at twice the rate of the general population--about half of low-income children have vision problems that interfere with their academic work--and they have more ear infections, which can be associated with temporary and permanent hearing loss. Because they tend to live in older buildings and go to older schools, low-income children are more likely to be exposed to lead from water pipes and to lead-based paint. Lead exposure negatively affects cognitive functioning and behavior. In fact, low-income children have dangerously high blood-lead levels at five times the rate of their middle-class counterparts. They are also more likely to breathe dangerous fumes from low-grade heating systems and to inhale dangerous fumes from diesel trucks and factories. So it’s not surprising that asthma rates among low-income students far exceed those of the general population. And there are other critical health factors that affect achievement and school absences: children from low-income families are more likely to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, have mothers who smoked during their pregnancies, have worse nutrition, and suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies at much higher rates.

School absences are substantially higher among lower-income students. In fact, they miss 30 percent more school days than their middle-income classmates--primarily due to health problems. Asthma has become the single biggest cause of chronic school absence--and low-income students with asthma are nearly twice as likely as middle-class students to miss seven or more days of school a year due to asthma. To make matters worse, these students have less access to health care and services, and they have the lowest levels of health insurance coverage. In combination, all these factors put low-income students at a disadvantage coming out of the gate.

Student Mobility

Moving--and changing schools in the process--can disrupt any child’s education. Having to adjust to new school surroundings can be difficult in itself, but changing schools can mean adjusting to new curricula, teaching strategies, and educational approaches. Low-income families are forced to move for economic reasons far more often than other families. The numbers are dramatic. Mobility rates are above 100 percent in many low-income schools, meaning that two students may sit in every classroom chair in a given year. One study found that 30 percent of low-income children had attended at least three different schools by the third grade, as compared to only 10 percent among the middle-class students.

Addressing the Education “Ecosystem”

Given the complexity of factors contributing to the achievement gap, a variety of strategies has emerged in an effort to close the gap, including high-quality early childhood education and before- and after-school programs and parental outreach programs. There is growing recognition that what goes on outside the classroom may be just as important as what goes on inside the classroom. Commenting in the May/June 2010 issue of American Teacher, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) says, “Closing the gap requires solutions that target the entire educational ecosystem. For too long, our fixes have targeted the classroom or school, while failing to fully address the remaining 17 hours of the day when the child is not in school.” In 2009, Rep. Honda helped create the Educational Opportunity and Equity Commission, which aims to further engage teachers, parents, schools, and communities in a dialogue at the local, state, and federal level to address the issue on all fronts.

Early Childhood Programs

Given the importance of school readiness, many states are funding early education programs or “pre-K” programs at higher levels than in the past. State courts in North Carolina and New Jersey found the importance of pre-K education to be so great that they mandated the states to provide pre-K funding and services for all at-risk students. At the start of the 2009 school year, when a record 51,100 students were enrolled in the state’s preschool programs, Gov. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) described the state’s investment in preschool programs as one of the most important measures of his administration.

Summer and After-School Programs

Research suggests that the differing experiences that children have during the summer months contributes to the gap in school achievement. Low-income parents may not buy as many books for their children or have computers at home or expand their exposure to new learning experiences by visiting museums and libraries. Along similar lines, low-income students may not have as many after-school options. In response, schools and districts across the country have created summer and after-school programs that provide low-income students with a wide variety of learning opportunities.

School-Based Health Care

To help overcome deficiencies in health services, some school systems around the country have created health clinics and/or services at school sites. There, students and their families may be provided with oral and vision services and have access to certified nurses to support a variety of other medical services. The Portland, Maine school system has developed an innovative approach that uses Medicaid funds to provide a wide variety of services at the school level. In Milwaukee, where high-poverty students represent 77 percent of the public school population, the city has introduced school-based health care programs in 14 schools through a community partnership with a private provider, Aurora Health Care. Other states such as Minnesota are examining ways to coordinate health and human services programs with their K-12 education systems. Minneapolis, for example, has introduced school-based clinics. The pooling of resources from different state and local programs shows great potential in helping school systems provide a variety of needed health services efficiently and effectively.

Parent Engagement

Study after study confirms the link between parental involvement and both student achievement and school quality. In order to increase parental involvement, the federal No Child Left Behind education act, passed in 2001, requires school systems to communicate with and engage parents. Schools around the country have responded with programs ranging from the establishment of parent engagement committees to new policies promoting parent-teacher conferences for at-risk students.

The Role of Schools and Communities

Increasingly, policymakers, educators, and communities are taking it to the next level--with community-based programs that engage schools, families, and communities, and with innovative academic programs focused on changing the culture of individual schools. These include academic programs tailored to the needs of specific groups of at-risk students--such as “English-language learners” or low-income students who fall through the cracks in large schools with a diverse student mix or high-poverty students in high-poverty schools.

The Education Trust has made a practice of identifying schools that defy the patterns of achievement that separate one income, ethnic, or racial group from another. Take the example of Morningside Elementary School, located in Brownsville, Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border. Many Morningside students start school without knowing any English--59 percent are “English-language learners.” Even so, in 2009, 99 percent of the school’s low-income fifth graders met state math and science standards--compared to 78 percent across Texas. And the school was designated “exemplary,” which means at least 90 percent of the students met or exceeded state standards. Another example is Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which has a diverse student body and a massive number of students--1,800. One-fourth of those are low-income and about 40 percent are African-American. Yet, overall, the school’s four-year graduation rate exceeds the state average. According to the Education Trust, African-American students at Jack Britt “graduate at higher rates than its white students (92 percent, compared to 83 percent) and at rates that are much higher than the rest of the state’s African-American students (who graduate on average at a rate of 67 percent).” Such examples suggest that individual schools can make a huge difference in narrowing the achievement gap.

It is particularly difficult to break the patterns of low academic achievement associated with poverty. The Condition of Education 2010, a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics, features a special section on high-poverty schools--defined as schools where more than 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. According to that report, over the past decade, the number of students attending high-poverty schools has grown. In 1999, 15 percent of the nation’s elementary school students were enrolled in high-poverty schools; by 2007 that number had grown to 20 percent. During that same period, the percentage of U.S. high school students enrolled in high-poverty schools rose from 5 percent to 9 percent. Consider the glaring gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools--and what it bodes for the future of these students: in 2007-2008, only 28 percent of graduates from high-poverty schools went on to four-year institutions--compared to 52 percent of students graduating from low-poverty schools.

When high-poverty students are concentrated in large, low-performing schools with other at-risk students, it fosters a culture of low expectations and low achievement. Students in high-poverty elementary and middle schools are on track toward so-called “dropout factories”--U.S. high schools with chronically high dropout rates. “The nation’s dropout problem is concentrated in segregated high poverty schools,” wrote Harvard University researchers in 2005 in Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Education Inequality. Innovative new schools, including urban charter schools developed to meet the needs of specific at-risk groups, and targeted efforts by other public schools, are showing success in reversing these trends. (See related article, “Charter Schools: Are They Achieving Results?”)

But progress is slow. Between 2001 and 2008, the U.S. graduation rate improved--from 72 percent to 75 percent, according to a report published by America’s Promise Alliance in 2009. And, based on an analysis by Johns Hopkins University researchers in that same report, the number of schools that qualify as dropout factories--high schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students--declined from 2,000 schools in 2002 to 1,750 schools in 2008. More heartening than the data from the study is this item that appeared in a New York Times analysis on November 30, 2010: “In 2005, researchers at Johns Hopkins University identified Richmond High School in Indiana as a dropout factory. But from 2006 to 2009, teachers, community leaders and professors joined in an effort to help students stay in school, raising the graduation rate to 80 percent from 53 percent, the report says.”

Closing the Gap

In fact, efforts by educators and advocates over the past 10 years to understand and address the achievement gap appear to be yielding results. There has been tremendous progress in closing the gap between white and African-American students at the elementary school level. According to the Education Trust, in 1996 nearly 75 percent--or nearly three out of every four African-American fourth graders--could not perform at a basic level in mathematics. By 2007, that number was down to 30 percent. That’s a significant shift. Yet, an achievement gap persists. According to Gauging the Gaps: A Deeper Look at Student Achievement, published in January 2010 by the Education Trust, “Nationwide, low-income students and students of color perform, on average, below their peers ….and in every state, low-income students trail their higher income peers in reading performance.”

In Gauging the Gaps, researchers looked at the issue in new ways, focusing not just on nationwide and state data but on comparing the progress different states, school districts, and even individual schools within the same jurisdiction are making in narrowing the gaps. And it identifies programs that are working. Says the report, “Some schools focus every day on providing all students with access to a rich, engaging curriculum and the support necessary to successfully meet expectations.”

Gauging the Gaps provides valuable insights into what schools can do to make a difference--and a more complex and accurate picture of what’s really going on. The researchers report “dramatic variations in the achievement of similar groups of children” across states and even from one district to the next--and identify schools that are doing substantially better than others, even in the same jurisdiction. Some of the results are surprising. For example, in Fairfax, Virginia, one of the state’s wealthiest and highest performing school districts, white fourth graders performed much better than white students in most other Virginia school districts. In fact, they’re tied for third in performance among 48 other districts. But, says the report, “That commendable performance for Fairfax’s fourth graders masks glaring differences in group performance.” African-American fourth graders in Fairfax are performing not just below their white counterparts but below other African-American students in 20 other Virginia districts, including those with far higher poverty rates.

This kind of analysis provides policymakers and educators with an important new tool. They can use state assessment results “to examine which districts are narrowing gaps and which are widening disparities.” District leaders can use the results “to look at gap-closing progress across their schools.” According to the report, “Leaders of the Godwin Heights school district in the down-on-its-heels industrial town of Wyoming, Michigan, did just that and learned that one school, North Godwin Elementary, was doing a much better job of erasing the academic disparities that separate some students, including English-language learners, from their peers. Based on the school’s success, district leaders tapped the North Godwin principal to lead gap-closing efforts districtwide.”
That can happen with other schools and in other school districts that are looking for ways to improve their educational systems--and their communities.


Web Resources

Public School Graduates and Dropouts From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2007-081

This report presents findings associated with public high school graduation and dropout counts for the 2007-2008 school year. These data were collected as part of the Common Core of Data Survey Collection, National Center for Education Statistics.

Gauging the Gaps2

This 2010 report from The Education Trust explores new ways to understand the progress different states, districts, and individual schools are making toward closing achievement gaps.


See related articles in REALTORS® Making a Difference, “Read, Teach, and Mentor in Your Community,” “Support Innovative Projects that Improve Schools,” and “Volunteering to Improve Schools.”

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