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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. Social Factors

The Black-White Achievement Gap Is the Result of Racial Stratification, Argues One Scholar

How is racial stratification related to poor academic achievement in black students? A scholar identifies three links.

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

Ogbu, J. U. (1994). Racial stratification and education in the United States: Why inequality persists.Teachers College Record,96, 264-298. Retrieved August 2, 2002, from

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

Why do black students perform worse in school than white students?

Scholar John Ogbu says that the most common explanation for this trend focuses on class or economic factors. However, he says, this kind of explanation does not work. The fact of the matter is that blacks of every social class perform worse than whites in the same class.

The real explanation for low black academic performance, thinks Ogbu, is racial stratification and inequality in the U.S.

But, how does racial stratification lead to lower black student test scores? Ogbu identifies three ways he believes that racial stratification can lead to lower academic achievement:

  1. limiting access of blacks to equal resources
  2. damaging perceptions and treatment of blacks in schools
  3. community forces within the black community

Blacks Are Not Given Equal Resources

Ogbu says that the first way that racial stratification can lead to lower test scores is through racial inequality in access to resources. He says:

"If the U.S. society or one of her local communities provides blacks with less and inferior education, then blacks cannot perform as well or go as far as whites in school." (How Racial Stratification Enters into Black Education section, ¶ 2)

Ogbu says that this obvious kind of racial discrimination was the target of the school desegregation movement and compensatory education (that is, spending more money on poorer schools). He says that the practices of overtly limiting black students from adequate educational resources has largely been reversed.

Perceptions and Treatment Hurt Black Students

Ogbu says that teachers and administrators perceive black students differently than white students. This would lead them to treat black students differently. Some examples of differing treatment of blacks versus whites include:

  • tracking
  • testing and misclassification
  • harmful representation in textbooks (or, no representation at all)
  • access to appropriate curriculum

He says that because black students may be perceived as inferior, they are not given access to advanced curriculum and are tracked into slower classes.

Black Community Forces Work against Higher Achievement

In contrast to the first two ways racial stratification affects black academic achievement, Ogbu identifies a series of responses of the black community to white treatment that may undermine black school achievement.

  • Black folk theories of effort and reward. Blacks have developed a folk theory that states that education does not pay. The belief is that a black student can work hard, make good grades, go as far as he or she can in school and still be excluded from successful jobs. If black children and families hold this belief, then they are unlikely, says Ogbu, to develop "effort optimism"that is, the belief that rewards are linked to the amount of effort they put into a task. If education does not pay, why put in the hard work to get a good education?
  • Black belief that school learning is "white learning." Ogbu points out that American blacks have developed an oppositional culture that equates school culture and standard English with white culture and language. Becoming academically successful means that a black student would need to reject black culture and identity for white culture. To the extent that blacks develop an oppositional stance to white culture and feel that school learning is identified with white culture, "being black"may come to mean performing poorly in school.
  • Black relational adaptations. Ogbu points to two ways that blacks have adapted to white society. First, blacks deeply distrust white institutionsand their black representatives. So, because public school is a white institution, it cannot be trusted to really help black students. Second, blacks who are successful distance themselves, physically and socially, from others in the black community. This leaves the perception among those blacks who remain that schooling may really mean abandoning your community.

From Ogbu's perspective, it is racial stratification, not class stratification, that lies behind poor black performance. This results not only from the ways that whites treat blacks, but from the ways that blacks have responded to that treatment.

Research Design:

Research Questions

Why does racial inequality persist in the U.S.

Data and Methods

Ogbu draws on a wide range of research on race and education to make the argument that racial inequality is a result of racial stratification rather than class stratification in the U.S.

Funding Source

Not given.


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