The Achievement Gap

Horace Mann, educational reform leader and founder of the common school, declared public school to be “the great equalizer” because all students received the same education allocated by the state. While each school distributes similar materials and curricula, the quality of education differs immensely. Although public school was established in order to provide free, quality education to all children, it has failed many students by not providing them with the preparation for college and the workforce they deserve. Lack of constructive school experience is most common among students of social and economic minoritie groups. Evidence for the gap in efficiency of education for people of various demographics can be found in classroom environments and success in college and careers, but most concretely in standardized testing, such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These exams show a gap within several facets of socioeconomics. Rather than providing means for social mobility, education is more often a reminder of socioeconomic inequality. This prevents capable students from achieving the “American Dream” of social mobility due to factors beyond their control including finance, family background, and race.

The achievement gap is evident before a child even begins school. Families of lower economic status tend to have two working parents, or one single working parent, makes it difficult for parents to spend time with their children. Time spent working is time that could have been spent reading to their children, or participating in other activities that enhance learning in early toddler years. On the other hand, families of greater financial flexibility can afford to have a non-working parent to spend time nurturing the children’s growth, or send children to a daycare or preschool where they can begin more structured learning. “Gaps in school readiness by race-ethnicity or socioeconomic status are present when children first enter school and even in measures of early development before school entry” (Karoly, 2015, p. 1). This does not end at elementary school. Families that make more money can afford tutors, private school, and other resources that give their children a leg-up in the competitive world of education. Standardized testing is one area that shows an immense achievement gap between students of higher and lower economic status. In the state of Pennsylvania, students of lower economic status tend to score 20-26 percentage points fewer on PSSA and NAEP exams, which exhibits a learning gap of two to three years of formal education (Karoly, 2009, p. 26). The fact that students in the same grade are testing at such a wide variety of academic ability begs educators to examine the inequity of opportunities and services available to all students. Not only is there an imbalance in standardized testing results, but skewed graduation rates. There is a graduation gap of 14%, with a secondary school completion proportion of “77 percent for the economically disadvantaged versus 91 percent for the nondisadvantaged” (Karoly, 2009, p. 31). Even though public school is free of tuition, there is a systematic partiality toward those with greater incomes. Finance is only one factor that impacts a student’s place in the hierarchy of achievement; all facets of family background shape the educational experience.

Another area of family background with a profound effect on the achievement gap is parent educational attainment, which further restricts social mobility. Only 43.9% of Pennsylvania adults attain a college degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2012), yet 54% of NAEP test takers have parents with a bachelor’s degree (Karoly, 2009, p. 26). That is a gap of about 10% in favor of families with a history of higher education. Not only do more children of educated parents take the NAEP; they score 25% higher scores in reading and 26% higher in math. Many scholars of social sciences suggest the reproduction of social inequality is related to one’s residential area, due to the fact that “failure rates are most pronounced where poverty is concentrated” (Noguera, 2013, p. 181). As public schools are funded by the government, families living in residential areas that pay higher taxes benefit from not only an economic, but an educational advantage – “The school that one attends is connected to the location of his or her home” (Goyette, 2014, p. 12). The PSSAs depict a proficiency gap in both math and reading of 25 to 30 percentage points dependent on performance differences across school districts, as well as a graduation gap of 15% (Karoly, 2015, p. 32). Parent educational attainment plays a significant role in the competition of residential-based schooling because adults with a bachelor’s degree receive more income than those who do not (Pennsylvania Profile of Adult Learning, 2010) and can afford more wanted housing, and therefore have access to a higher quality of education. An education system that favors particular family backgrounds, such as those with a history of higher education or of a particular race, reproduces the cycle of inequality and the achievement gap by offering further advantages to those of higher socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is not limited to one’s financial state; it includes other demographics that determine one’s social status in American society, including race.

In every type of school district, race is one of the primary influencing factors in the correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement. African-American and Latino students scored an average of 24 to 38 percentage points below their white counterparts on both the PSSAs and the NAEPs, an educational gap worth about three years of public school education (Karoly, 2009, p. 26). One must take into consideration that in Pennsylvania “educational gaps between whites and minorities for college attainment is greater than the national average and has widened since 2000” (Pennsylvania Profile of Adult Learning, 2010). Race is strongly correlated to issues of economy and residence. People of color earn significantly less income than their white counterparts (Jones, 2009, p. 58), which creates a cycle of poverty while perpetuating stereotypes. Urbanization, along with the unbalanced funding of public schools, cause race to be a defining factor in the achievement gap. Black and white segregation is particularly common in American metropolitan areas (Goyette, 2014, p. 1). As a result, minority students are “more likely to attend poorer quality schools, have poorer quality teachers, and suffer from discriminatory practices such as ability grouping, retention, and tracking” (Rumberger, 2009). On the other hand, there are also many students of minority races with college-educated parents who attend suburban schools with strong funding and high-quality teachers. However, minority students, specifically African-American, Latino, and mixed races, still experience an achievement gap that can be linked to the limited number of opportunities available to them in education, even in a positive school setting. Many students of racial minorities suffer from lack of motivation because they are influenced by their teachers’ low expectations, according to Noguera (2013). “This is often the case in affluent school districts with relatively small numbers of minority students” (p. 182). Subconscious racial biases create systematic segregation within schools, despite the fact that students of all races learn in the same classroom. Higher quality elementary/secondary education, and therefore more opportunities to attend college and pursue a higher-paying career, is available to select groups of students in the American education system.

Human capital plays a significant role in allocating groups of students who succeed and those who do not. Human capital is the knowledge, skills, social ability, creativity, and culture transmitted from parent to child that determines the type of experience a student is equipped with. “Skills, health, learning, motivation, ‘credentials,’ and many other characteristics” (Rumberger, 2010) are all components of human capital that ascribe a student’s success or failure before education even beings. According to Russell W. Rumberger (2010):

Families transmit genetic and cultural attributes to their children which, in turn, influence their children’s earnings – the primary component of economic welfare – as adults. Families make choices about allocating resources to consumption, asset accumulation, or investment in the human capital of their children.

Due to the substantial variation in human capital, some students enter education with a more advanced history of formal and informal education. For example, a kindergartner who attended preschool has an advantage over the kindergartner who did not; the high school student who must work in order to support his or her family might gain momentous social and professional schools, but receive poorer grades than the economically advantaged student with extra time to study. These gaps in knowledge and skills are outside of any individual student’s control, but remain a deciding factor in one’s attainment of the American Dream.

The stratification of students that determines who prospers and who fails is not due to better grades or harder work, but social and economic demographics beyond the control of students, families, or even teachers. Although many educators attempt to help students succeed in school despite conflicting external circumstances, the allocation of which students find success in college and career begins with issues of race and money. A clear solution to the achievement gap has yet to be identified. Some believe that redistribution of school funding would balance the equity of access to education, while some economists and social scientists cite larger socioeconomic issues as the source of the problem, and therefore require a more complex solution (Rumberger 2009). No matter what the true source of or solution to the socioeconomic achievement gap in American schools, teachers must strive toward educational equality by valuing and encouraging the ability of all students.


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