What Is the Achievement Gap and What Can Educators Do About It?

What is the achievement gap?

It’s no secret that there’s a pretty big variance in educational outcomes for students across the country. Some school districts regularly produce high-achieving students who have several hours of college-level course credits in their pockets by graduation, while others have cause for celebration when fifty percent of the class is proficient at reading.

These stark differences in educational outcomes is sometimes referred to as “the achievement gap.” In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what the achievement gap is, the underlying issues causing it and what communities are doing to try and bridge that divide.

What is the achievement gap?

While much of the focus when discussing this topic focuses on educational disparities between white students and students of color, the National Education Association describes the achievement gap in broader terms. The NEA identifies the following groups as experiencing significant achievement gaps:

  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • English language learners
  • Students with disabilities
  • Boys and girls
  • Students from a low-income families

Many of these groups may have significant overlap as well—the idea is to take a holistic view of student backgrounds and how they may affect achievement levels.

Evidence for the achievement gap is most commonly found in dropout rates, test scores, college enrollment rates and other measurements of success in schools.

More than an illustration of student success, the achievement gap speaks to systemic issues we deal with as a nation. U.S. News and World Report  reported in 2016 that over the last half-century, the achievement gap between white and black students has hardly narrowed, in spite of “supposed progress in race relations and an increased emphasis on closing such academic discrepancies between groups of students.”

What’s driving the achievement gap?

So, why do some students succeed while others struggle? And what do experts think is the best way to bridge the gap for good?

Many experts say redefining how we perceive the so-called achievement gap is the first step to making concrete, lasting changes in education. Monica Ingkavet, vice president of ExpandED Schools, a New York nonprofit dedicated to helping kids in low-income communities gain access to enriched education experiences. Ingkavet says the gap has more to do with opportunity than achievement.

“We like to call it the opportunity gap because children from low-income areas do not have opportunities to experience enrichments in the arts, physical activities and academic enrichments that support their learning like children from middle- and high-income homes,” Ingkavet says. “Children need to be exposed to a variety of activities that allow them to experience self-confidence along with small group tutoring that helps target their academic needs.”

While race, ethnicity and gender may all correlate with gaps in achievement, it’s overly simplistic—and offensive—to look at this data and assume people of color don’t have the ability to become high achievers, or that women are somehow born to be less proficient in certain subjects. There are deeper structural issues in our society that must be considered when tackling this problem. 

Take generational poverty—which is often exacerbated for people of color due to discrimination—and how it makes the road to achievement much harder for students of average intelligence. Think of it this way: a student whose parents have to work multiple jobs and doesn’t know where his or her next meal is coming from will have a much harder time focusing or receiving additional out-of-classroom learning than someone in a more stable economic situation.

This disadvantage cascades over the course of a lifetime. By ExpandED Schools’ estimate, children born into poverty experience 6,000 fewer hours of learning than their peers in the solidly middle-class homes. So what’s the impetus for the 6,000-hour gap? Ingkavet says it has less to do with time in the classroom and more to do with after-hours enrichment and learning opportunities, such as summer camp, tutors and after-school or extra-curricular activities.

What can be done to close the gap?

From an educator’s perspective, the bad news is that this problem likely cannot be solved quickly just through changes in educational policy. Generational poverty and systemic discrimination can be chipped away at with education, but there’s no instant fix. That said, educators are well aware of achievement issues and are taking steps to remedy what they can.

For instance, some school districts are offering lunch to students at no charge to help ensure all students receive at least one nutritionally sound meal each school day—and eliminate any stigma low-income students may face when they can’t afford lunch. Education professionals often seek to level the playing field by advocating for programs that offer low-income students additional learning and enrichment opportunities.

Kevin Welner, author of Closing the Opportunity Gap, writes in a Washington Post editorial that it is time for educators to rethink how we measure achievement in the first place. “The status quo of test-based accountability reform needs to give way to new, evidence-based approaches dedicated to building the capacity to accomplish accountability goals,” Welner writes.

Welner says closing the gap is more about supporting and challenging students on a personal level than forcing a stringent, systemic approach. In other words, it’s about enrichment and fueling the desire to learn. “We can build on children’s strengths by supporting them and challenging them to excel. The good news is that closing the opportunity gap doesn’t require a magical quick fix; the bad news is that to do it we need to stop grasping at those magical quick fixes,” Welner writes.

“Children learn when they have opportunities to learn. When denied those opportunities, they fall behind, and we get the devastating achievement gaps. But when they are provided with rich opportunities to learn, they thrive, and the achievement gaps close.”

Researchers at SCOPE, or the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, emphasize that in order for students to thrive holistically, we must give them holistic opportunities to do so—inside and outside the school environment. One paper, “How to Close the Opportunity Gap: Key Policy Recommendations,” recommends early, comprehensive intervention policy within the U.S. educational framework. “Students’ overall opportunities to learn are affected by multiple factors that arise both inside and outside of school. Significant educational growth will occur only when we comprehensively address these levels of influence.” This means addressing children’s health, meeting language needs and increasing access to early childhood education for low-income students.

Of course, though extracurricular learning opportunities are crucial, what happens in schools is also a large part of student success. SCOPE also advocates for more equitable government school funding reform and creating richer, more challenging curriculum for all students, including test reform.

How does early childhood education fit into this?

One of the earliest areas where the achievement gap widens is due to a lack of affordable access to early childhood education. Early learning opportunities are the foundation for all students to build upon. Learn more about why ECE is a virtual first step to closing the achievement gap in our article, “4 Reasons You Can’t Ignore The Importance of Early Childhood Education.

Ashley Abramson

Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She also works as a copywriter for a creative agency and edits an online magazine where she enjoys connecting with others through the written word.

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