Theories About the Origin of the Racial Achievement Gap

The achievement gap between low-income minority students and middle-income White students has been a popular research topic among sociologists since the publication of the report, "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (more widely known as the Coleman Report). This report was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 1966 to investigate whether the performance of African-American students was caused by their attending schools of a lesser quality than white students. The report suggested that both in-school factors and home/community factors affect the academic achievement of students and contribute to the achievement gap that exists between races.

The study of the achievement gap can be addressed from two standpoints--from a supply-side and a demand-side viewpoint of education. In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo explain the two families of arguments surrounding education of underserved populations. Demand-side arguments focus on aspects of minority populations that influence education achievement. These include family background and culture, which shape perceptions and expectations surrounding education. A large body of research has been dedicated to studying these factors contributing to the achievement gap. Supply-side arguments focus on the provision of education and resources and the systemic structures in place that perpetuate the achievement gap. These include neighborhoods, funding, and policy. In 2006, Ladson-Billings called on education researchers to move the spotlight of education research from family background to take into account the rest of the factors that affect educational achievement, as explained by the Coleman Report. The concept of opportunity gaps--rather than achievement gaps--has changed the paradigm of education research to assess education from a top-down approach.