Want to Close Achievement Gaps? Know Why They Exist in the First Place

Nov 16, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Garris Stroud

There’s a sad reality in our education system today: Some students just don’t do as well as others. I realize I’m not breaking news here, but the fact that there’s such a disparity between students from poor families and communities and students from solid middle-class families is bad for everyone. The fact that minority students historically fall far behind their White peers still has an effect on those White peers, especially as everyone grows up and starts to play more prominent roles in our economy, or government, our politics and everything else. So, as a result of this, we keep hearing a lot about achievement gaps in conversations surrounding educational policy. Basically, these are just hard numbers that we can rely on to explain exactly how significant the inequality is between the achievement of different groups of students. But in order for educators and stakeholders to be effective in closing achievement gaps, we’ll need to start thinking about how they’re actually caused. Because as it turns out, we’re all implicated.

Who’s In Control?

There are multiple factors that contribute to achievement gaps, and most experts agree that they’re all interrelated in some fashion. As the National Education Association (NEA) helpfully points out, though, no single party is responsible for the existence and persistence of achievement gaps. School-related factors (like low rigor, low expectations and a lack of cultural representation in curriculum) play a role, but external factors (like local economic opportunities and family involvement) contribute to achievement gaps as well. With that knowledge, it’s clear that achievement gaps are messier than what they may appear at first.  With all these factors, it should be apparent that there is no one-size-fits-all remedy to closing achievement gaps, and that parents, teachers and stakeholders share a collective responsibility in improving student achievement.

Sure, But What Gap Are We Talking About?

Researchers and policymakers often discuss “closing the gap,” but as explained earlier, there are different types of achievement gaps, and it’s not helpful to approach all gaps the same way. We need to be specific about our plan to close these different gaps, because they don’t all necessarily have the same contributing factors. So, for example, let’s focus for right now on the racial achievement gap. The achievement gap between White students and both African-American and Hispanic students have slightly narrowed over the past several decades, but that closure rate has been stagnant for the past decade. Does that mean that not all students are capable of learning? Of course not! There’s simply more going on here than just what happens during the school day, and if we want to close that gap, we need to start thinking more broadly about why that gap exists and how its contributing factors are interrelated. One factor is simply that minority students are more likely to experience poverty than their White peers. Also, we know that there is a tremendous skills gap for incoming and young teachers, as there aren’t many who are prepared to effectively teach students from diverse cultural backgrounds. When it all boils down, these are all pieces to the same puzzle: If these students have fewer resources at home and teachers that can’t really relate to their personal backgrounds, the inequalities we see in achievement aren’t going anywhere—and that’s something teachers will need support to fix. If we want to close achievement gaps, we need to know why they’re there in the first place. And whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a community member, there’s a seat at the table for everyone willing to join that conversation.

Garris Stroud

Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. Stroud received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Murray State University and is currently a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, located in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. Read more about his work on the Kentucky School Talk and Rural Ed Voices blogs.

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