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The Achievement Gap: Causes and Possible Solutions

By bnyirady Nov 28, 2011 2272 Words
This research paper will take a look at the achievement gap that exists in education. The achievement gap is best described as the difference in educational proficiency between students who come from a high or middle class white family, and students who come from a low class or minority family. One of the main determinants of the achievement gap is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These tests are given every few years to make available reliable information about the academic performance of American students in various learning areas. The other main determinant of the achievement gap that is commonly used are studies that show the highest level of educational attainment for different groups. The different causes for the gap, different ways to reduce the gap, as well as examples of schools that have successfully done so will also be discussed.

The Achievement Gap:
Causes and Possible Solutions
What causes the gap?
Many educational researchers have studied the causes of the significant achievement gap between Caucasian middle or upper class students and African-American or Hispanic underprivileged students, and have demonstrated that there is not one cause, but many. Paul E. Barton, a Senior Associate in the Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center, wrote an article about the achievement gap. Barton states that the causes can be divided into two categories, the “In School” category, and the “Before and Beyond School” category (Barton, 2004). These studies show that the responsibility for the gap rests unilaterally on the parents of the child, the teachers, as well as society. According to Barton (9-11) some of the before and beyond school causes are health issues such as low birth weight, Lead poisoning (Living in homes with lead-based paint used prior to 1946), and hunger and nutrition. Other issues are more aimed at family involvement such as reading to young children, television watching, parent availability, student mobility, and parent participation in their child’s life. Educators also have a role to play in bridging this educational gap. Some of the causes in schools are lack of curriculum rigor, inexperienced teachers, unqualified teachers, exceedingly large classes, lack of technology, and unsafe schools. All of these causes have a very large effect on a student’s education. For example, most schools that have a majority of low-income, or African-American and Hispanic students, have a hard time keeping teachers. It is common sense that to be good at anything, you need to be experienced at it. This is true about teaching as well, and when teachers move on to ‘better’ jobs after experiencing the difficulties present in these types of schools, the teachers that are brought in are mostly young and inexperienced. It is very difficult to bring quality to your job as a young teacher, because the learning curve is so sharp. According to Wenglinsky (2000), “Quality teaching was identified in a recent analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress as the most powerful influence on academic achievement.” How fair is it to the student, to throw a new teacher into that type of situation and expect them to have any success at all, not to mention bringing quality to their job. Society has allowed these difficult school settings to develop. When single parents have to work two or three different jobs just to make ends meet, how much time will they have to nurture their child? When students bring knives or guns into the school to intimidate or threaten another student, or even a teacher, how can the school possibly keep money coming in from wealthy parents? These questions are just a few that could be posed to show how society has let down many individuals involved with these institutions.

Ways to reduce the gap
The achievement gap is so complex, that there is no one way to reduce it. As the causes for the gap can be separated into three areas (home, school, and community) so can the solution. Complexity is the major reason that many believe that the achievement gap will always be present. It involves so many different people, communities, and even cultures, that coordinating a gap-reduction effort seems practically impossible. Although it may seem difficult, it is possible to bridge the gap.

Bridging this gap begins with the parents. Most children do not have teachers until they turn five or six years old, so it is the parent’s responsibility to provide for the child’s needs. These include their physical needs (food and shelter), emotional needs (intimacy, honesty, and time), and a variety of psycho-social needs (need for guidance, instruction, discipline, etc…). Parent's have to take the time to become actively involved in the process.

Schools also play a very large role in the process of closing the achievement gap. There are techniques that teachers can use to help with student learning (Bennett, Pg. 16 & 17). One technique is providing opportunities for students to practice retrieval. This involves finding ways to cue into a child’s prior experiences to help with data retention and retrieval. Once this has been achieved, it is important to build on a student’s prior knowledge base and experiences. Another technique involves varying the conditions of learning. For example not all students are auditory learners. So instead of just lecturing, teachers can use pictures, activities, music, etc… to address other types of learning styles. This type of teaching can take more planning and work on the teacher’s part, but the benefits are well worth the extra time and effort (Bennett, Pg. 16 & 17). One last technique is infusing each lesson with strategies for learning. Many students memorize just to pass an upcoming test, and by the week after, they have forgotten what they learned. This is due to the fact that they were never taught strategies for learning that will help them retain that knowledge, and be able to retrieve it when needed. Infusing each lesson with ways to learn and retain that day’s content can assist in their long-term learning experience (Bennett, Pg. 16 & 17). Each student and their parents are all part of a community, so it is important that students learn to develop a sense of membership in and a responsibility for their community. One way to do this is by giving back to the community. Community service activities are a great way of helping students learns the importance of doing just that. These can include organizing environmental projects, collecting food for homeless shelters, tutoring others, and many others. For the students to really see the importance of giving back to the community, it is only natural that they should want to see what their community has done for them. The community can take many forms ranging from the school board, to the local YMCA’s or boy/girl scout programs. One very relevant example of what the community can do for each student is by making sure the school is well funded. If a student sees their school as run-down or dirty because it can’t afford janitors or maintenance, why would the student want to take care of the community’s environment when they leave school? Or if the student feels unsafe at the school, or even on the way to school because there are gangs or other dangerous types in the neighborhood, how would this encourage them to stay out of gangs if that is the only way that they know of to protect themselves? There are many other ways the community can strive to close the academic gap as well. One of these ways is described by James W. Popham in his article, A Game without Winners; (2004) he focuses on the need for achievement test reforms. He states, “The makers of standardized achievement tests have no serious interest in selecting test items that will reflect effective instruction.” This statement is very direct and to the point. Traditional achievement tests are created in such a way that there will always be high scores, low scores, and plenty of scores in-between. That is their objective, to show the student’s knowledge of the test material (which is not all taught in school) rather than just knowledge gained in school. Popham’s premise is that for schools to do better themselves and to really discover how well they are teaching their students, the testing system needs to be changed. His research which coincides with The Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment, (2001, October) has some guidelines that communities can use to close the academic gap.

Schools that have successfully reduced the gap
There are many schools that have overcome the odds and have successfully reduced the achievement gap. One example is Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School in Cheverly, Maryland. It is a K-6 elementary school with 755 students enrolled, ninety percent of which are minority students, sixty three percent of which come from low income families. From 1994 until 1998, principal Sherry Liebes and her staff turned what was a discipline-less, poor test-scoring school into one of the best schools in the state of Maryland. Many changes were made in addition to replacing the administration. Academically, they switched to a "performance-based" or "authentic-task" based instruction that according to one Spellman teacher, “this method of teaching better prepared the students for the state assessment”(Hope for Urban Education, 1999). The state assessment used by Spellman was the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) which currently is called Maryland School Assessment (MSA). The reason this program is relevant to this study, is because it is very similar to the program described by Popham. They believe that understanding how tasks have been scored should help teachers better prepare students for improved performance. The goal of the MSA is to help teachers know how better to instruct their students, not to make sure their scores come out in a bell curve. (High, low, and all in-between) There are eight other schools documented on the Hope for Urban Education website, and many others across the states that have had similar successes. One common thread among the majority of these schools is they were well funded. When a school is well funded, more energy and creativity can be placed where it can help the school improve. When schools begin to improve, subsequent improvements in achievement scores also improve. These schools also shared the advantage of having a leader who had a vision and stayed with it. Any one of these schools may have failed if the principal and administration hadn’t held on to that vision. These are just a few of the reasons that these schools, attended by mostly minority and low-income students, succeeded where others have failed.

Author’s Viewpoint
The achievement gap is a very real problem in the United States educational system. Not every school has to deal with it directly, but it is still a problem that needs everyone’s cooperation to resolve. The achievement gap has been around for many years, and at times has appeared to narrow. The problem is, it keeps returning like a bad nightmare. One of the reasons for this is the high turnover rate in students and their parents. This is a natural occurrence, students graduate, and new students enter. The problem is, the new students and their parents haven’t experienced the problems before, or have their own problems, and so the cycle continues. I believe that the best way to reduce this gap is to educate more people about it. For example, I have been a teacher for nine years, and took four years of education classes, and this is the first I have heard about it. I would guess that there are many other teachers who have never heard of the achievement gap either. How can a widespread problem like this be rectified when so few people have knowledge of its existence, causes, and possible solutions? How many young parents could improve their life and the lives of their children by just learning about parenting? Allowing a child to start out well in their life, goes a long way towards helping them become successful. “The usual way people talk about closing the achievement gap is to examine what adults need to do for students. The discussions typically involve adults talking to adults.” (Flono, 2010) According to the Kettering Foundations research written by Fannie Flono, the students themselves can and should play a large part in reducing the gap. Many times students will have more insight into why the gap exists than adults, and if given the opportunity can help with coming up with a solution.   References

Barton, P. E. (2004). Gap Persist? Educational Leadership , 9-13.

Bennett, A., & Gridglall, B. L. (2004). All Students reaching the top. Naperville: Learning Points Associates.

Charles A. Dana Center. (1999). A Study of nine high-performing, high-poverty urban elementary schools. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from

Kettering Foundation. (2010). Helping Students Succeed. Dayton: Kettering Foundation. (2010). School Improvement in Maryland. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from MDK12:

NGA Center for Best Practices. (2010). Closing the Achievement Gap. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from Closing the Achievement Gap:

Popham, J. W. (2004). A Game without winners. Educational Leadership , 46-50.

The Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment. (2001, October). Builting Tests to support instruction and accountability. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from Test Accountability:

Wenglinsky, H. (2000). How Teaching Matters. Princeton: Educational Testing Service.

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