The basic right to equal school access eventually became a reality. But on the whole, equal access has not led to equal achievement. Local communities, state policymakers, and the federal government have kept equal achievement on their agendas, as expressed in such efforts as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. But like prosperity in an earlier period, equal achievement has remained just around the corner.
In 2004, equal achievement is still far around the corner and way down the block. The National Assessment of Educational Progress consistently reports that the average 8th grade minority student performs at about the level of the average 4th grade white student (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Minority students are found all up and down the achievement scale, of course, but too many remain lower down.
I recently undertook a project to see how well I could pin down, from accumulated research knowledge and available statistics, why the school achievement gap persists.1
To do so required two steps.
The first step was to identify the life experiences and conditions that research showed were associated with school achievement. Because so many studies were involved—from the high hundreds to the low thousands—I had to rely on competent syntheses and meta-analyses to identify factors on which the research community had reached a consensus. I identified 14 factors that correlated with achievement (see “Factors That Correlate with Student Achievement,” p. 10).
The second step was to look for statistics that indicated whether children's experience with each factor differed on the basis of race/ethnicity and income. Statistical data by race/ethnicity were available for each of the 14 factors; in every instance, a gap existed. Data by income were available for 12 of the factors, and a gap existed for 11 of them. The conclusion is clear: Achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and income mirror inequalities in those aspects of schooling, early life, and home circumstances that research has linked to school achievement.
The Development Environment
Infants with low birthweights are at risk of impaired development, including delayed motor and social development. They are more likely to fail or repeat grades. In 2000, 13 percent of black infants were low in birthweight, compared with 7 percent of white infants and 6 percent of Hispanic infants.
Lead poisoning is a long-recognized problem whose principal source is thought to be the lead paint found in old houses. According to the last available data, the percentage of black children under age 6 living in housing built before 1946 (when lead paint was commonly used) was more than three times the percentage of white children living in such environments; for Mexican American children, the percentage was double that for white children.
Common sense as well as research tells us that hungry, malnourished children are harmed in their cognitive development. From regular surveys of hunger and food insecurity, we know that black and Hispanic children under age 18 are about three times more likely to be hungry and insecure in their food supply than white children are.
Home Learning Conditions
Children whose parents or caregivers read to them when they are young gain a considerable advantage in terms of language acquisition, literacy development, achievement in reading comprehension, and general success in school. Black and Hispanic children are read to much less than white children are, and children in poverty are read to less than children from higher socioeconomic brackets.
Reading is just one of many parent behaviors that develop cognitive capabilities in children. In-depth observational studies conducted over a substantial period of time by Hart and Risley (1995) recorded the interactions of parents with their children—both type and frequency. The researchers reached a startling conclusion: Three-year-old children in professional families had a vocabulary as large as that of the parents in the study who were on welfare.
When parents bring television into their living rooms and their children's bedrooms, they take on a large responsibility. They need to control the amount of TV and the kind of programs the children watch. The test posed by E. B. White in 1938 has been graded, at least for students. He said,
I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of vision, we shall discern either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. (quoted in College Board, 1977, p. 37)
Television is no “saving radiance” for children; watching a lot of television is associated with lower achievement. A recent study led by Christakis (2004) established that each hour of television that a child watches on a daily basis between the ages of 1 and 3 years old increases by 10 percent the risk that the child will have attention problems. Forty-two percent of black 4th graders watch six hours or more of television per day—more than three times the percentage of white 4th graders who watch that much.
We speak of the teacher-pupil ratio, but we also need to think in terms of a parent-pupil ratio. Whether the family includes two parents as resources or just one is bound to make a difference. Substantial research on parent availability confirms this commonsense idea. The family is the institution that has the job of raising children and socializing them. Public policies and programs can help families when they are struggling, but no acceptable substitute for families has been invented.
The trends are not encouraging. During the last quarter of a century or more, the two-parent family has been in decline in the United States and throughout the developed world. And the relationship of these trends to the achievement gap is clear: Just 38 percent of black children lived with both parents in 2000; almost one in 10 lived with neither parent. Among Hispanic children, 65 percent lived with two parents, as did 75 percent of white children. Struggling single-parent mothers, and sometimes fathers, need all the help they can get from the community and from the school.
The causes of student mobility are complex and are related to social conditions, such as the availability of jobs and affordable housing. Changing schools within a school year is hard on students—and hard on teachers, who find new students in their classes who have not necessarily been studying what the other students have learned.
A recent study in Jefferson County, Kentucky, found that frequent school changers scored lower on school tests. Poor students and students from single-parent homes had the highest school-changing rates (Metropolitan Housing Council, 2004).
The rate of student mobility has not been measured nationally since 1991. The data from that survey, published in 1994 by the U.S. General Accounting Office, showed that 41 percent of frequent school changers were below grade level in reading, as were 33 percent in math; these percentages were higher than those of students who had not changed schools. About 17 percent of all 3rd graders had already attended three or more schools; the rate for minority students was double the rate for white students.
The Home-School Connection
The need for active parent participation—strong interaction between parents and the school—is well recognized. The online Child Trends Data Bank, in summarizing the research, concluded that
students with parents who are involved in their school tend to have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance, and they are more likely to complete secondary school. (2003)
Child Trends also found that differences in parent involvement by race/ethnicity and income tend to show up in situations that require deeper involvement. Most parents attend scheduled meetings with teachers, but parents of black and Hispanic students and low-income parents are much less likely than parents of white students are to attend a school event, do volunteer work, or serve on a committee. Teachers in high-poverty schools are most likely to say that lack of parent involvement is a problem.
Schools need to set the climate for strong connections with parents, and educators may need to put in extended effort with many low-income and single-parent families. One notable effort is the decision of New York City to have a home-school coordinator in every school—an initiative that comes with a large price tag.
The research identifies six school factors that are associated with achievement. The reader may be looking for such factors as the quality of leadership, pedagogy, and professional development. Although more research in these areas may well establish a relationship, however, I did not find that the existing research establishes a consensus on these factors.
The rigor of the curriculum, unsurprisingly, has a clear association with student achievement. It is reassuring that the proportion of students taking more advanced courses in high school has steadily increased during the last couple of decades. In addition, there have been large increases in students taking advanced placement (AP) courses. In the latter case, we can be fairly sure that the rigor of AP courses has remained relatively stable. However, it is harder to pin down whether Algebra II today is as rigorous as it was 20 years ago. And educators should be concerned that we are not getting the boost in achievement that we might expect from all this advanced course taking.
Although all racial/ethnic groups are now taking harder courses than in the past, minorities still lag considerably behind, and they are underrepresented in advanced placement examinations.
Having experienced teachers with at least five years of experience makes a difference in student achievement. Minority and low-income students are more likely to be taught by teachers with three or fewer years of experience and to be in schools with higher teacher turnover. Students are also exposed to less experienced teaching when substitutes must frequently fill in for absentee teachers. Eleven percent of 12th grade students are in schools in which 6 to 10 percent of the teachers are absent on an average day; for minorities, the rate is more than double the rate for white students.
Researchers have also found that teacher preparation affects student achievement. Students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are much more likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers. As Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, states,
The dirty little secret is that there are large numbers of unqualified individuals teaching, and they are disproportionately assigned to teach children of color and children from impoverished backgrounds. (Grossman, Beaupre, & Rossi, 2001)
Although researchers have extensively studied the effects of class size on student achievement for decades and many states and localities are engaged in efforts to reduce class size, the debate on the return on such an investment still goes on. However, I believe that most people would agree that at the very least, minority students ought to have classes as small as those of nonminority students. They don't: Classes with a high percentage of minority students are more likely to have 25 or more students.
Educators have expected to reap great benefits from technology-assisted instruction, and computers have become ubiquitous in classrooms and in computer laboratories. Research has found beneficial results in the use of computers, although it has hardly examined all their different uses.
Computers have permeated schools with a high percentage of minority and poor students about as much as they have other schools. In the classroom, however, computers are somewhat less likely to be available to minority students than to nonminority students. The gap widens in terms of Internet availability in the classroom, and it widens further in the case of more advanced uses, such as using the Internet to conduct research. Although 61 percent of students in schools with low minority enrollments were assigned such research in 1999, this was true of only 35 percent of students in schools with high minority enrollments. Similar discrepancies are found in schools with high proportions of low-income students.
Unsafe schools, fear, and disruption are not conducive to learning. Research has shown that a positive disciplinary climate is directly linked to higher achievement. The school learning climate is negatively affected by a range of student behaviors, including disrespect for teachers, absenteeism, use of alcohol and drugs, violence, and possession of firearms. On a wide range of conditions that impede learning, research has found differences among the experiences of various racial/ethnic and income groups. For example, the percentage of minority students who fear an attack at school or on the way to school is double that of nonminority students. And more minority students than white students report that they avoid going to one or more places in the school because they believe it is unsafe.
Where to Begin?
Whenever I present this information to a group, someone always asks, “Which set of factors is the most responsible for the achievement gap—school or nonschool? What conditions, if we attend to them, will result in the largest improvement?”
Research has not provided a definitive answer to this question, nor can it probably do so. The well-known 1966 Coleman report is often cited as showing that family factors are more predominant than school factors in explaining differences in achievement between minority and nonminority students, but I do not believe that this is what that report established. In a later paper, Policy Research in the Social Sciences, Coleman says something that I have never seen quoted:
The plan of the analysis was not appropriate for study of the relative effects of background and school variables, but it was correct for study of the relative effects of different school variables [after background variables were held constant]. (1972, p. 6)
Clearly, both school and nonschool factors underlie the achievement gap. Further, the conditions that improve learning in school and out of school are intertwined. For example, wealthy communities with families that place a high value on learning are likely to have strong schools, attract good teachers, and have healthy interactions between parents and teachers. Communities characterized by low family income are likely to have schools with fewer resources to attract highly qualified teachers.
Research has also not established the degree to which action on one particular front can narrow a gap that was created on another front. For example, it is well established that young children who are not read to will, on average, enter school with a handicap. But how much can extra attention, increased instructional time, tutors, and more highly trained and experienced teachers in the early school years make up for this lack? These factors will help reduce the gap, but we don't know by exactly how much. Unfortunately, we do know that minority students and poor students will be getting less of this richer schooling than the average student, not more.
Another example is a malnourished child who entered the world at a below-average birthweight and now has health problems and decaying teeth. Will high standards, test-based accountability, and higher-quality teaching boost this child's achievement enough to eliminate the gap? Not likely, although these actions are likely to raise his or her achievement. A health and nutrition policy is a learning policy and should be recognized as such.
Closing the gap must be more than a one-front operation. Educators must hold ourselves responsible and accountable for improving schools when and where we can. At the same time, we must recognize that the achievement gap has deep roots. Governments, communities, neighborhoods, and families have the responsibility to create conditions that remove barriers to cognitive development and support learning in the home.
Factors That Correlate with Student Achievement
Before and Beyond School:
- Lead poisoning
- Hunger and nutrition
- Reading to young children
- Television watching
- Parent availability
- Student mobility
- Parent participation
- Rigor of curriculum
- Teacher experience and attendance
- Teacher preparation
- Class size
- Technology-assisted instruction
- School safety
Child Trends Data Bank. (2003). Parent involvement in schools [Online]. Available: www.childtrendsdatabank.org/pdf/39_pdf.pdf
Christakis, D. A., Zimmerman, F. J., DiGiuseppe, D. L., & McCarty, C. A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics, 113(4), 708–713.
Coleman, J. (1972). Policy research in the social sciences. Morristown, PA: General Learning Press.
College Board. (1977). On further examination: Report of the Advisory Commission on the SAT scores decline. Princeton, NJ: Author.
Grossman, K. N., Beaupre, B., & Rossi, R. (2001, Sept. 7). Poorest kids often wind up with the weakest teachers. Chicago Sun-Times [Online]. Available: www.suntimes.com/special_sections/failing_teacher/part2/cst-nws-main07.html
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Metropolitan Housing Council. (2004). Moving on: Student mobility and affordable housing. Louisville, KY: Author. Available: www.metropolitanhousing.org/pdf/mhcdoc_32.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card: 2003 mathematics and reading results [Online]. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/results2003/raceethnicity.asp
Tumin, M. (1958). Desegregation: Readiness and resistance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
For an expanded discussion of the study and for data sources, see the full report Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress, published by Educational Testing Service and available on the ETS Web site at
www.ets.org/research/pic/parsing.pdf. Any data sources not cited specifically in this article are drawn from the full report.
Paul E. Barton is an education writer and consultant and Senior Associate in the Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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