Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 4

Those Persistent Gaps

The gaps in life, health, and school experiences of minority and low-income children just won't go away.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Although we've focused more and more attention on dealing with the seemingly intractable gaps in achievement between black and Hispanic students and white students in the last quarter century, we've made little progress in closing the gaps. All subgroups of students have, in general, improved as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But disparities related to race/ ethnicity and socioeconomic status remain.
Although the gaps may seem intractable, they are not inevitable if we continue to enlarge both our understanding of why they exist and what it will take to close them. A 2003 report from the ETS Policy Information Center titled Parsing the Achievement Gap answered two questions: What life and school conditions are correlated with cognitive development and school achievement? and, Do gaps in these conditions among racial/ethnic and income groups mirror the gaps we see in achievement?
We updated this effort in 2009 in a report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II. The report identified 16 such gaps and examined the trends in these gaps since the previous report. The 16 factors are clustered in three categories: school factors, factors related to the home and school connection, and factors that are present both before and beyond school. These factors begin at birth.

Birth Weight

Research has long established that low birth weight can lead to severe problems, ranging from mortality to learning difficulties. Children having a birth weight of less than approximately 5.5 pounds are more likely to end up in special education classes, repeat a grade, or fail in school.
Between 2000 and 2005, there was an increase in low birth weight for blacks, whites, and Hispanics. However, the percentage of black infants born with low birth weight in 2005—14 percent—was approximately double that for white and Hispanic infants.
The trend: The gap in birth weight narrowed between black and white infants from 2000 to 2005, but only because low birth weight increased the most for white infants. A gap opened between Hispanic and white infants during this period. In 2000, the percentages of low birth weight in the two groups were comparable—at 6.6 percent for whites and 6.4 percent for Hispanics. In 2005, however, that percentage climbed to 8.2 percent for whites compared with 6.9 percent for Hispanics.

Lead Poisoning

Research has established that lead poisoning can seriously affect children, causing reductions in IQ and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, and behavior problems. As a result of laws focused on cleaning up the environment, the levels of lead in children's blood have dramatically decreased over the decades. However, we have not eliminated lead in the environment. A synthesis of recent studies has established that there is no safe threshold for blood lead levels.
Children in minority and low-income families have a higher risk of exposure to lead as a result of living in old houses or around old industrial areas with contaminated buildings and soil. Black children have considerably higher blood lead levels than white or Hispanic children have. The levels are about four times higher for blacks than for whites, and they are more than twice as high for children below the poverty line than for those above it.
The trend: Although the 1980s saw dramatic drops in blood lead levels, these have leveled off in recent years. The gaps between whites, blacks, and Hispanics and between poor and non-poor children have remained relatively constant.

Hunger and Nutrition

Science supports the commonsense view that hunger impedes student learning. Adequate nutrition is necessary for the development of both mind and body. The differences show up early, as revealed by studies of inner-city kindergarten students. Children in these studies who were underweight tended to have lower test scores.
Black and Hispanic children are more than twice as likely as their white peers to live in food-insecure households. In 2005, 29 percent of black children and 24 percent of Hispanic children were food insecure, compared with 12 percent of white children. The situation was more pronounced among households below the poverty line—43 percent of these households were food insecure, compared with just 6 percent of households with incomes more than double the poverty line.
The trend: From 1999 to 2005, the gap between black and white children remained unchanged. The gap between whites and Hispanics narrowed because food insecurity rose slightly for white children (from 11 to 12.2 percent) but improved for Hispanic children (from 29.2 to 23.7 percent).

Television Watching

Research shows that excessive television watching is detrimental to school achievement. In fact, one study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that for children ages 1 to 3, each hour of television watched daily increased by 10 percent their risk of having attention problems, such as attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, by the time they were 7. In 2006, 57 percent of black 8th graders watched four or more hours on an average weekday, compared with 20 percent of white 8th graders.
The trend: There was no change in the gaps from 2000 to 2006. However, we need to track the time students spend with newer devices—such as mp3 players, video games, and cell phones—because use of such devices is growing.

Talking and Reading to Children

By talking and reading to their children, parents play a crucial role in children's language development and early literacy. Research has found that by the time children are 36 months old, the vocabulary of children in professional families is more than double that of children in families receiving welfare.
In 2005, 68 percent of white children ages 3–5 were read to every day, compared with 50 percent of black children and 45 percent of Hispanic children. Poor children were also less likely to be read to than their more affluent peers.
The trend: From 2001 to 2005, the gaps remained about the same. All groups slightly improved, with the largest improvement occurring in the "near-poor" group (100 to 199 percent of the poverty line), narrowing the gap between near-poor and non-poor families.

The Parent-Child Ratio

Both common sense and a large body of research establish that students who have two parents in the home have better chances of doing well in school than students who just have one. This is partly because one-parent families have lower incomes, on average, and partly because of the absence of one parent. The gaps are large: Just 35 percent of black children and 66 percent of Hispanic children live with both parents, compared with 74 percent of white children.
The trend: The good news is that the steady decline of the two-parent family, for all subgroups, has recently stopped. However, the gaps have not changed from 2000 to 2006.

Summer Achievement Gains and Losses

Educators have long known about reading losses that occur over the summer. Accumulating research has established that depending on their summer experiences, some students gain over the summer and some lose. Clearly, changes in test scores cannot be attributed entirely to what happens during the school year.
The quality of summer experiences varies by family income. Students isolated in high-poverty inner-city areas often experience little or no enrichment. Large gaps exist between white and minority students in the degree to which achievement grows during the summer.
The trend: Trend data are not yet available.

Frequent School Changing

Changing schools is a challenge both to students and their teachers. A change in schools may mean that a student faces work he or she is unprepared for, a teacher who is unfamiliar with his or her previous school records, and a new environment in which he or she is an outsider.
Not all school changing is the result of residence changing. According to research, 30 to 40 percent of such changes are the result of school overcrowding, class-size reductions, suspension and expulsion policies, general school climate, and, possibly, the parental choice options in No Child Left Behind.
Minority students change schools more frequently than white students do. Although the mobility rates for all groups declined from 2000 to 2006; the largest decline was among Hispanic households.
The trend: From 2000 to 2006, the gaps changed little.

Parent Participation

Although teachers play the predominant role in student achievement, substantial research has confirmed that parents play an important supportive role. One key aspect is the degree of parent-school interaction. On some measures of parent involvement, such as whether parents attend a scheduled meeting with a teacher, little difference exists by race and ethnicity. However, on measures that require greater involvement, such as volunteering or serving on a committee, larger differences emerge. In 2003, 48 percent of white parents reported volunteering or serving on a committee, compared with 32 percent of black parents and 28 percent of Hispanic parents.
The trend: The good news is that parent involvement showed an increase from 1999 to 2003 for all racial and ethnic groups. The gaps among groups narrowed for attending a school event but remained about the same on measures requiring greater involvement.

Rigor of the Curriculum

Research supports the unsurprising fact that students' academic achievement is closely related to the rigor of the curriculum. There has been progress across all groups in taking a "midlevel" curriculum in high school. A midlevel curriculum is defined as at least four credits in English and three each in social studies, mathematics, and science; completion of geometry and Algebra II; at least two courses in biology, chemistry, and physics; and at least one credit in a foreign language.
The trend: The gap in taking a midlevel curriculum in high school has closed between black and white students, with 51 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites completing a midlevel curriculum. There has been no narrowing of the gap between whites and Hispanics, however, with only 44 percent of Hispanics completing a midlevel curriculum in 2005. The gaps have changed little since 2002.

Teacher Preparation

Teacher quality is strongly related to student achievement. Yet sizeable gaps exist among racial/ethnic groups in the percentage of students whose teachers are fully certified. In 2007, 88 percent of white 8th graders had certified teachers compared with 80 percent of black 8th graders and 81 percent of Hispanic 8th graders. There are also gaps among students whose teachers have a major or minor in the subjects they teach.
The trend: There has been little change in the gaps in teacher certification among groups. However, for teachers prepared in a given subject matter, the gap between Hispanic and white students increased from 2003, whereas the gap between black and white students remained about the same.

Teacher Experience

Research has shown that the amount of teaching experience has an effect on student achievement. Specifically, having five or more years of teaching experience makes a difference. The gaps by race and ethnicity are large; black and Hispanic students tend to have less experienced teachers. In 2007, 20 percent of white 8th graders had teachers with four or fewer years of experience; this was the case for 28 percent of black 8th graders and 30 percent of Hispanic 8th graders.
The trend: The gaps have remained unchanged from 2003 to 2007.

Teacher Absence and Turnover

More minority students than white students attend classes in which teachers are frequently absent. In 2007, 8 percent of white 8th graders experienced high teacher absence rates compared with 11 percent of black 8th graders and 13 percent of Hispanic 8th graders. Many more have teachers who leave before the end of the school year. Such disruptions have a negative effect on student achievement.
The trend: For teacher absence, the gap grew between white and Hispanic students from 2000 to 2007 and narrowed between black and white students. For teacher turnover, the black/white gap remained unchanged, and the white/Hispanic gap narrowed slightly.

Class Size

Although many studies have found that class size makes a difference in student achievement, the issue is controversial. But few would disagree with the proposition that minority students should not be subject to larger classes than majority students. Also, some research shows that black students, particularly males, benefit from smaller classes. Minority students are, on average, in larger classes than majority students are.
The trend: From 2000 to 2004, the class size gap between schools with high and low proportions of minority students increased.

Technology in the Classroom

In general, research supports technology use in classrooms, particularly for drill and practice. The availability of computers in the classroom, along with Internet access, continues to increase. By 2005, 92 percent of schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment had Internet access in the classroom, compared with 96 percent of schools with less than 6 percent minority enrollment.
The trend: The gaps among groups narrowed between 2000 and 2005.

Fear and Safety at School

Research has established that a positive disciplinary climate directly links to higher achievement. In many schools, maintaining discipline may be the largest problem that teachers face. Minority students more often avoid certain places in school because of fear of an attack, experience the presence of street gangs, and are involved in fights.
The trend: Between 2001 and 2005, there was an increase in black and Hispanic students reporting gangs in the school—36.6 percent of black students and 38.4 percent of Hispanic students reported such an increase compared with 16.6 percent of white students. For physical fights, the gap between white and Hispanic students widened, with 18.3 percent of Hispanic students typically involved in this behavior compared with 11.6 of white students. There was no change in the gap among students experiencing fear of attack or harm in school.

The Truth of the Matter

People frequently ask which of these factors are the most important or whether out-of-school factors have larger or smaller effects on student achievement than school factors. Given the research currently available, we are unable to answer these questions. However, we can be sure that both school experiences and home and early life experiences are important. And the two are related: Low-income neighborhoods where there are few resources in the home also tend to have low tax bases available to support high-quality schools.
Those who argue that what happens outside of school and before school begins should not play a role in the ability of the "good" schools to raise all students to the same high standard seem to assume that students are empty vessels that schools can fill up with knowledge. But students are not empty vessels.
For those who argue that these early and out-of-school experiences are the sole reasons for achievement gaps found in schools—and that schools are powerless to remedy them—we know for a fact that schools can make a difference. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Students do not learn their algebra at home." How well teachers are prepared, how much experience they have, how often they show up in school, and how well they maintain order and discipline in their classrooms all make a difference— and minority students are getting short-changed on all those fronts.
To address the achievement gap, we need to focus on equalizing access to high-quality schools. We also have to focus on conditions beyond school to compensate for challenges that many students experience in life outside the classroom.
End Notes

1 Barton, P. E. (2003). Parsing the achievement gap: Baselines for tracking progress (Policy Information Report). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Available: www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICPARSING.pdf

2 Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2009).Parsing the achievement gap II (Policy Information Report). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Available: www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICPARSINGII.pdf

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 110023.jpg
Health and Learning
Go To Publication