Origins and Causes of the Achievement Gap

Researchers have not reached consensus about the a priori causes of the academic achievement gap; instead, there exists a wide range of studies that cite an array of factors, both cultural and structural, that influence student performance in school. Annette Lareau suggested that students who lack middle-class cultural capital and have limited parental involvement are likely to have lower academic achievement than their better resourced peers. Other researchers suggest that academic achievement is more closely tied to race and socioeconomic status and have tried to pinpoint why.For example, being raised in a low-income family often means having fewer educational resources in addition to poor nutrition and limited access to health care, all of which could contribute to lower academic performance. Researchers concerned with the achievement gap between genders cite biological differences, such as brain structure and development, as a possible reason why one gender outperforms the other in certain subjects. For example, a Virginia Tech Study conducted in 2000 examined the brains of 508 children and found that different areas of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared to boys. The differing maturation speed of the brain between boys and girls affects how each gender processes information and could have implications for how they perform in school. Hernstein and Murray claimed in The Bell Curve, creating much controversy, that genetic variation in average levels of intelligence (IQ) are at the root of racial disparities in achievement. Other researchers have argued that there is no significant difference in inherent cognitive ability between different races that could help to explain the achievement gap, and that environment is at the root of the issue.

Origins of the achievement gap in early childhood
Research shows that the achievement gap, which often first manifests itself through standardized tests in elementary school, actually begins well before students reach kindergarten as a “school readiness” gap. One study claims that about half the test score gap between black and white high school students is already evident when children start school. A variety of different tests at kindergarten entry have provided evidence of such a gap, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey of Kindergarten children (ECLS-K). While results differ depending on the instrument, estimates of the black-white gap range from slightly less than half a standard deviation to slightly more than 1 standard deviation. This early disparity in performance is critical, as research shows that once students are behind, they do not catch up. Children who score poorly on tests of cognitive skills before starting kindergarten are highly likely to be low performers throughout their school careers. The evidence of the early appearance of the gap has led to efforts focused on early childhood interventions.

Cultural and environmental factors
The culture and environment in which children are raised may play a role in the achievement gap. Jencks and Phillips argue that African American parents may not encourage early education in toddlers because they do not see the personal benefits of having exceptional academic skills. As a result of cultural differences, African American students tend to begin school with smaller vocabularies than their white classmates. However, poverty often acts as a confounding factor and differences that are assumed to arise from racial/cultural factors may be socioeconomically driven. Many children who are poor, regardless of race, come from homes that lack stability, continuity of care, adequate nutrition, and medical care creating a level of environmental stress that can affect the young child’s development. As a result, these children enter school with decreased word knowledge that can affect their language skills, influence their experience with books, and create different perceptions and expectations in the classroom context.

Studies show that when students have parental assistance with homework, they perform better in school. This is a problem for many minority students due to the large number of single-parent households (67% of African-American children are in a single-parent household) and the increase in non-English speaking parents. Students from single-parent homes often find it difficult to find time to receive help from their parent. Similarly, some Hispanic students have difficulty getting help with their homework because there is not an English speaker at home to offer assistance.

Another explanation that has been suggested for racial and ethnic differences in standardized test performance is that some minority children may not be motivated to do their best on these assessments. The first explanation is that standardized IQ tests and testing procedures are culturally biased toward European-American middle class knowledge and experiences. Claude M. Steele suggested that minority children and adolescents may also experience stereotype threat—the fear that they will be judged to have traits associated with negative appraisals and/or stereotypes of their race or ethnic group which produces test anxiety and keeps them from doing as well as they could on tests. According to Steele, minority test takers experience anxiety, believing that if they do poorly on their test they will confirm the stereotypes about inferior intellectual performance of their minority group. As a result, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins, and the child performs at a level beneath his or her inherent abilities. Some researchers also hypothesize that in some cases, minorities, especially African American students, may stop trying in school because they do not want to be accused of “acting white” by their peers. It has also been suggested that some minority students simply stop trying because they do not believe they will ever see the true benefits of their hard work. As some researchers point out, minority students may feel little motivation to do well in school because they do not believe it will pay off in the form of a better job or upward social mobility. By not trying to do well in school, such students engage in a rejection of the achievement ideology - that is, the idea that working hard and studying long hours will pay off for students in the form of higher wages or upward social mobility.

Structural and institutional factors
Different schools have different effects on similar students. Children of color tend to be concentrated in low-achieving, highly segregated schools. In general, minority students are more likely to come from low-income households, meaning minority students are more likely to attend poorly funded schools based on the districting patterns within the school system. Schools in lower-income districts tend to employ less qualified teachers and have fewer educational resources. Research shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. Good teachers can actually close or eliminate the gaps in achievement on the standardized tests that separate white and minority students.

Schools also tend to place students in tracking groups as a means of tailoring lesson plans for different types of learners. However, as a result of schools placing emphasis on socioeconomic status and cultural capital, minority students are vastly over-represented in lower educational tracks. Similarly, Hispanic and African American students are often wrongly placed into lower tracks based on teachers’ and administrators’ expectations for minority students. Such expectations of a race within school systems are a form of institutional racism. Some researchers compare the tracking system to a modern form of racial segregation within the schools. Studies on tracking groups within schools have also proven to be detrimental for minority students. Once students are in these lower tracks, they tend to have less-qualified teachers, a less challenging curriculum, and few opportunities to advance into higher tracks. There is also some research that suggests students in lower tracks suffer from social psychological consequences of being labeled as a slower learner, which often leads children to stop trying in school. In fact, many sociologists argue that tracking in schools does not provide any lasting benefits to any group of students.

Additionally, poor and minority students have disproportionately less access to high-quality early childhood education, which has been shown to have a strong impact on early learning and development. One study found that although black children are more likely to attend preschool than white children, they may experience lower-quality care. The same study also found that Hispanic children in the U.S. are much less likely to attend preschool than white children. Another study conducted in Illinois in 2010 found that only one in three Latino parents could find a preschool slot for his or her child, compared to almost two thirds of other families. Finally, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), families with modest incomes (less than $60,000) have the least access to preschool education. Research suggests that dramatic increases in both enrollment and quality of prekindergarten programs would help to alleviate the school readiness gap and ensure that low-income and minority children begin school on even footing with their peers.