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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. School Factors

Schools Matter: Four Steps to Closing the Achievement Gap Once and For All

Progress in closing the racial and economic gap in student performance halted during the 1990s. States can and have resumed progress by having uniform standards, making the curriculum challenging, helping students catch up, and providing good teachers.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Haycock, K. (2002). State policy levers: Closing the achievement gap.The State Education Standard, 3,6-13.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

New accountability standards now require states to break student achievement data down by race and class. Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, discusses what states can expect to find and what they can do about gaps in performance among different groups of students.

The Achievement Gap in Perspective

Between 1970 and 1988, the difference in performance between white and minority students fell 50% for African Americans and 33% for Latinos. However, Haycock says that the racial achievement gap held steady during the 1990s and even grew slightly among 17-year-olds in reading and among 13-year-olds in mathematics. Black and Latino students nearing high school graduation still perform at the same level as white 8th graders.

This gap in achievement shows up as a gap in attainment as well. Haycock says that about 90% of whites aged 18&–24 have a high school degree compared with 81% of African Americans and 63% of Latinos. Blacks are only half as likely and Latinos only one-third as likely to get a college degree as whites by age 29.

The Myth of Poverty

Many people believe that poverty or single-parent families cause low achievement. However, Haycock says that poor children in some schools or poor schools in some states perform very well. A recent national survey found that over 4,500 schools that were in the top third of their state in terms of poverty and minority enrollment were in the top third in achievement as well.

Haycock says that some states, such as North Carolina, Connecticut, and Texas, continued to make progress in closing the achievement gap during the 1990s. African American 8th graders in Texas, for example, now outperform their white peers in seven other states. Poverty, violence, and parental education matter, according to Haycock, but research shows that low expectations and less-challenging classes matter more.

Lessons for Closing the Gap

Since research shows that what schools do matters, Haycock focuses on the following changes in the educational system that have proven helpful in closing the racial and economic achievement gap:

  1. Have uniform standards. High-poverty schools often set shockingly low standards for their students. Haycock says that "clear and public standards for what children should learn at benchmark grade levels are a critical part of solving this problem" (p. 9). The progress of Kentucky, the first state to adopt such standards-based reform, is "clear and compelling," she writes (p. 10).
  1. Make the curriculum challenging. Uniform standards mean nothing without a rigorous curriculum. Haycock says that high school students who take college-preparatory courses perform much better on standardized tests than students who take "vocational" classes, even if these students were not high performers to begin with. In 1992, just under 26% of African American and 23% of Latino 10th-graders were on a "college prep" track, compared with 34% of whites. Rigorous course work is also "the single most important determinant of who succeeds in college," Haycock writes (p. 10).
  1. Help students catch up. Higher standards will only frustrate students who lack a good foundation in reading and mathematics. Haycock says "we need to double or even triple the amount (and quality) of instruction that they get" (p. 11). Kentucky gives high-poverty schools more money to extend instruction, while San Diego devotes more of the school day to literacy and mathematics for low-performing students.
  1. Provide good teachers. Poor and minority students are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers (no matter how qualification is measured). Further, research shows that good teaching is "the thing that unquestionably matters most" to student learning, Haycock says (p. 12). Studies of schools in Texas and Tennessee also show that teaching matters regardless of race, class, or prior achievement. A study by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson, for example, found that Texas students in low-performing schools that hired the best teachers eventually outperformed students from high-performing schools that hired from the bottom of the teaching pool.

Haycock says that El Paso, Texas is an example of a school district that has worked hard to close the achievement gap. Local education leaders set high standards for students and provided more training and support for teachers. The results, says Haycock, are "no more low-performing schools and increased achievement for all groups of students, with bigger increases among the groups that have historically been behind" (p. 12).

How States Can Help

Haycock concludes by offering a few suggestions on how state policymakers can begin to focus on the "academic core":

  • Breaking myths and changing expectations means creating "clear and unequivocal" standards, assessments, and accountability systems (p. 12). Reports should document progress by group and include information on all schools in the state.
  • Upgrading curricula means making the content and not just the number of classes a requirement for graduation. Texas, for example, has moved to make the college prep curriculum the "default" curriculum.
  • Increasing the quality of teaching means more than hiring more and better teachers. Teachers also need to be distributed more equitably. New York forbids using uncertified teachers in low-performing schools, while Louisiana issues a "report card" that compares teacher quality in the district as a whole with the district's poorest school.
  • Helping low-performing students and teachers means providing more money for instruction, professional development, and assessment. This may also mean providing more flexibility in instructional time.
  • Creating equity in resources means redirecting state funds to poorer schools. 42 states give more money to the wealthiest schools than the poorest schools. New York has the greatest inequity, spending $1.17 million less per elementary school in the poorest districts. Money alone won't help, Haycock says, but some of the things that money can buy will.

Research Design:

This article is based on an overview of trends in racial and economic differences in educational achievement and a review of research on how to close this achievement gap.

Support was provided by the Education Trust, established in 1992 to advocate for improved K&–16 student achievement, especially the poor or members of a minority group.


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