What causes achievement gaps? The answers are multiple, varied, complex, and interconnected, which is one reason why gaps can be so persistent despite the efforts of educators, schools, and whole systems.
If we are to create effective schools that truly serve all children, then closing the achievement gap is an essential priority. When we disaggregate educational data, a consistent pattern emerges. Race, culture, ethnicity, language, and economic status continue to be powerful predictors of school failure. Writes Gary Howard (2002), “Whether the measure is grades, test scores, attendance, discipline referrals, drop-out or graduation rates, those students who differ most from mainstream White, middle/upper class, English speaking America, are also most vulnerable to being mis-served by our nation’s schools.”
As educators, how do we understand this phenomenon in ways that will help us address it effectively? If our analysis is inadequate, our responses will be as well.
The good news is that scholars, educators, and communities throughout the country have identified many of the elements that comprise the complex causes of achievement gaps and are working toward solutions. A seminal study by James Banks and several colleagues (2000) provided a comprehensive overview of variables related to the achievement gap. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation, the study identified 62 variables, organized into 5 categories and 12 principles, related to educational equity. The sheer number of variables is evidence that any response by school systems must be multidimensional, targeted at multiple levels of the system, and sustained over time.
We can begin to understand the many variables that contribute to achievement gaps by examining how these factors might affect the school system at 3 different levels: district/school leadership, classroom, and student.
School culture, climate, policy, and practice
Factors such as inequitable levels of school funding, unequal distribution of highly qualified and experienced teachers, harsh disciplinary policies, minimally articulated core curriculum, and lack of consistent instructional support can result in a system that causes vulnerable students to continue falling further behind. Edward Fergus, citing findings from his 10-year root cause analysis of disproportionality (2016), found that “the wellness of instruction and curriculum as it is represented in instructional support teams/teacher assistance teams, intervention services, assessment, and gifted and talented programs continuously emerged as maintaining gaps in practices that disproportionately affected struggling learners.” Attempts to address achievement gaps without addressing the structural conditions that foster and reinforce such gaps will inevitably lead to uneven, unsustainable results.
Inconsistent process for tracking, special education, gifted, Advanced Placement
Disproportionality is the over- and underrepresentation of racial/ethnic minorities in relation to their overall enrollment (Ahram, Fergus, & Noguera, 2011), most often related to discipline rates, special education classification, and honors/gifted/AP placement. Fergus identified inconsistencies in the pre-referral process as one common cause for overrepresentation of minority students in special education. Teacher interviews found that special education was often viewed as a “fix” for struggling students. Other research, including Visible Learning research conducted by John Hattie (2009), found that tracking had “minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects.” Oakes et al (1990) analyzed 1,200 public and private elementary and high schools and found that minority students were seven times more likely to be identified as low-ability than as high-ability students.
Limited beliefs about student ability or readiness, implicit bias, and racism
Teacher expectations have a profound effect on student achievement. In Pygmalion in the Classroom, Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) found that teacher expectation is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is critical for struggling students, as Jon Saphier (2016) writes, “Students are profoundly influenced by the messages they get from the significant people in their lives about their ability.” Teacher beliefs about students’ ability may be unconsciously communicated through body language, tone of voice, and choice of words and behavior. This requires continual self-observance and self-reflection on teachers’ part to ensure that they are consistently communicating high expectations for all students.
Students are profoundly influenced by the messages they get from the significant people in their lives about their ability.
—Jon Saphier in High Expectations Teaching
Inconsistent knowledge of assessments and interventions for struggling students
Inconsistent knowledge of the purpose and use of assessments can lead to teachers and specialists using the wrong interventions and strategies for meeting the specific needs of struggling learners. Fergus (2016) found that inconsistent intervention strategies resulted in students who were far below proficiency not receiving adequate and sustained opportunities to accelerate their learning, while students who were barely into proficiency tended to “slide” in and out of proficiency. Many struggling students received instruction and interventions that were only enough to get them to proficiency, but not enough to master academic skills. Schools can better support teachers and specialists by implementing tiered systems of support and providing ongoing professional development in the use of evidence-based interventions.
Lack of professional development in culturally responsive teaching practices
White teachers comprise 82.7% of teachers in all public schools (Goldring, Gray, & Bitterman, 2013). Most educators, like most people, grow up and live in communities that reflect their background, and have few opportunities to interact with people from other racial, ethnic, language, and social-class groups (Banks et al., 2001). Despite changes in teacher preparation and professional development in recent decades, many teachers have still have few or inconsistent opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to work effectively in culturally diverse educational settings. Professional development focused on not just building teachers’ cultural competency, but also classroom applications of culturally responsive teaching practices, are critical in building bridges of understanding and authentic student-teacher relationships.
Claude Steele (1999) has studied the impact of “stereotype threat” on the performance of Black students. He defines stereotype threat as “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype” (p. 46). The sad lesson of this work is that even if no one in the school is being overtly racist toward students of color, the strong presence of the threat is still internalized and often destructive. Educators can lessen the effects of stereotype threat by forming trusting relationships with students and creating supportive learning environments.
Experience and social capital gaps
Student leaders discuss race through the Youth Equity Stewardship program.
Diverse students, especially students of poverty, may lack access to the same enrichment experiences and social capital that their middle and upper class peers may enjoy. Students may not have access to resources such as travel, museums, vocabulary-rich environments, tutoring, art and music classes, and technology. Amongst the student-related findings of the Banks study, the panel recommended that “schools should provide all students with opportunities to participate in extra- and co-curricular activities that develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes that increase academic achievement and foster positive interracial relationships.”
Internalized beliefs about ability
Students who are on the low end of the achievement gap—usually children of color and often also of poverty—have been getting messages about their “ability” all their lives and have experienced being behind academically so long that they have internalized these messages. Writes Jon Saphier in High Expectations Teaching, “If we are to eliminate the achievement gap, we have to change these students’ minds about their supposed low ability and persuade them about the benefits of becoming good students. Taking that on will bring us face-to-face with our own beliefs about our students’ capacity, our own biases, our racial assumptions, and our own inevitable doubt about malleable ability.” Explicit strategies for helping students develop a growth mindset can be highly effective in combatting students’ low expectations or low confidence.
Despite the complexities and challenges of addressing achievement gaps, educators have been making steady progress in the last few decades. In places where good things are happening for racially diverse, poor, and other marginalized students, the focus has been on the core elements of quality schooling:
No leader and no teacher can close achievement gaps alone, but when a school system mobilizes resources and expertise across all levels of the organization—district, school, classroom, and student—we can create opportunities for excellence for all learners.
Resources for Further Reading
School integration and its effects on disproportionality: Excerpt from Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity by Edward Fergus.
The impact of teacher and student beliefs on student confidence and achievement: Excerpt from High Expectations Teaching by Jon Saphier
Basic beliefs underlying culturally responsive teaching: Excerpt from Bright Ribbons: Weaving Culturally Responsive Teaching Into the Elementary Classroom by Lotus Linton Howard
Ahram, R., & Fergus, E. (2011). Understanding disproportionality: Views in suburban schools. In A. Artiles, E. Kozleski, & F. Waitoller (Eds.), Inclusive education: Examining equity in five continents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Banks, J., Cookson, P., Gay, G., Hawley, W. D., Irvine, J. J., Nieto, S., Schofield, J. W., & Stephan, W. G. (2001). Diversity within unity: Essential principles for teaching and learning in a multicultural society. Seattle: Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington.
Cooper, E., & Allen, M. (1997, November). A meta-analytic examination of student race on classroom interaction. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association, Chicago, IL.
Fergus, E. (2016). Solving disproportionality and achieving equity: A leader's guide to using data to change hearts and minds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Goldring, R., Gray, L., & Bitterman, A. (2013). Characteristics of public and private elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2011–12 schools and staffing survey (NCES 2013-314). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
Howard, G. (2002). School Improvement for All: Reflections on the Achievement Gap. Journal of School Improvement, v3 n1 p11-17.
Howard, G. (2014). We can't lead where we won't go: An educator's guide to equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Oakes, J. Ormseth, T., Bell, R., & Camp, P. (1990). Multiplying inequalities: The effects of race, social class, and tracking on opportunities to learn mathematics and science. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Saphier, J. (2016). High expectations teaching: How we persuade students to believe and act on "smart is something you can get.” Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Steele, C. M. (1999). Thin ice: “Stereotype threat” and Black college students. The Atlantic Monthly, p. 46.