What Is The Achievement Gap and Why Should You Care?

The achievement gap is often fostered by unequal access to educational resources. Four factors consistently influence achievement: smaller schools and class size, a challenging curriculum and highly motivated teachers. At the center of debates regarding the achievement gap are interpretations of the gaps in educational achievement between white and minority students as measured by standardized test scores. The presumption that guides much of the debate is that equal opportunity now exists. Therefore, continued low levels of achievement on the part of minority students must be a function of culture, a lack of effort and will etc. However, educational outcomes for minority students are primarily a function of their unequal access to key educational resources. I do not believe that they are a function of race. The U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their socioeconomic status. In contrast to most European and Asian nations that fund schools equally, the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Despite stark differences in funding, teacher quality, curriculum, and class sizes, the prevailing view is that if students do not achieve, it is their own fault. All of my research on the topics of the achievement gap and the drop-out crisis in the United States stem this belief: No student sets out to fail and no student wants to fail. It is the responsibility of the education system to help all students, regardless of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, achieve at their full potential.
Unfortunately, educational experiences for minority students have continued to be substantially unequal. Two-thirds of minority students still attend schools that are predominantly minority, most of them located in central cities and funded well below those in neighboring suburban districts. Unequal systems of school finance cause disproportionate harm on minority and economically disadvantaged students. Such students tend to be concentrated in states that have the lowest capacities to finance public education. Many minorities and economically disadvantaged students are located in poor urban and rural districts that suffer from fiscal inequality. Schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority students receive fewer instructional resources than others. This leaves minority students with larger class sizes, fewer and lower-quality books, curriculum materials, laboratories and computers. Many schools serving low-income and minority students do not even offer the math and science courses needed for college, and they provide lower-quality teaching in the classes they do offer. Naturally, this all adds up. The achievement gap imposes the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession. Avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement cause serious and often tragic consequences such as lower earnings, poor health, and higher rates of criminal incarceration (see statistics below). The achievement gap is also closely related to the dropout crisis in the United States because students affected by the gap have a higher dropout rate than students who are not affected by the gap.

Goals of My Senior Year Project (subject to modification)

A) To work with people, schools and organizations that are working on the achievement gap and dropout crisis in order to gain a better understanding of these topics and what I can do to help the fight.

B) To work with these people, schools or organizations through and observing their work and interviewing them through film (field work portion of the project).

C) To conduct all of my research in such a manner that the products of the research such as the paper, video interviews and action plan (that will most likely contain an awareness campaign based on my research) can be potentially utilized by other people, schools or organizations working on the achievement gap and dropout crisis.

Some Brief Case Studies to Consider

In an analysis of 900 Texas school districts, Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson found that teacher expertise (as measured by scores on a licensing examination, master's degrees, and experience) was the single most important determining factor of student achievement. After controlling for socioeconomic factors, the large disparities in achievement between black and white students were almost entirely due to differences in the qualifications of their teachers. Economist Helen Ladd repeated this analysis in Alabama and again found significant influences of teacher qualifications and smaller class sizes on achievement gains in math and reading. They found that more of the difference between the high and low scoring districts was explained by teacher qualifications and class sizes than by poverty, race, and parent education. A Tennessee study found that elementary school students who are assigned to ineffective teachers for three years in a row score nearly 50 percentile points lower on achievement tests than those assigned to highly effective teachers over the same period. Remarkably, minority students are about half as likely to be assigned to the most effective teachers and twice as likely to be assigned to the least effective. Minority students are put at greatest risk by the American tradition of allowing enormous variation in the qualifications of teachers. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found that new teachers hired without meeting certification standards (25 percent of all new teachers) are usually assigned to teach the most disadvantaged students in low-income and high-minority schools, while the most highly educated new teachers are hired largely by wealthier schools. In schools with the highest minority enrollments, for example, students have less than a 50 percent chance of getting a math or science teacher with a license and a degree in the field. With little knowledge about how children grow, learn, and develop, or about what to do to support their learning, these teachers are less likely to understand students' learning styles and differences, to anticipate students' knowledge and potential difficulties, or to plan and redirect instruction to meet students' needs. They also often blame the students if their teaching is not successful. Teacher expertise and curriculum quality are interrelated in an interesting way because a challenging curriculum requires an expert teacher. Research has found that the most expert teachers teach the most demanding courses to the most advantaged students, while lower-track students assigned to less able teachers receive lower-quality teaching and less demanding material.

Statistics and Facts About High School Drop out Rates (Published Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:22 PM by Right Mind)

  • “ Every 29 seconds another student gives up on school, resulting in more than one million American high school students who drop out every year
  • Nearly one-third of all public high school students—and nearly one half of all African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans—fail to graduate from public high school with their class
  • There are nearly 2,000 high schools in the U.S. where 40 percent of the typical freshman class leaves school by its senior year
  • The dropout problem is likely to increase substantially through 2020 unless significant improvements are made
  • Dropouts are more likely than high school graduates to be unemployed, in poor health, living in poverty, on public assistance, and single parents with children who drop out of high school
  • Dropouts earn $9,200 less per year than high school graduates and more than $1 million less over a lifetime than college graduates
  • Dropouts were more than twice as likely as high school graduates to slip into poverty in a single year and three times more likely than college graduates
  • Dropouts are more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as high school graduates
  • Dropouts are four times less likely to volunteer than college graduates, twice less likely to vote or participate in community projects, and represent only 3 percent of actively engaged citizens in the U.S. today
  • The government would reap $45 billion in extra tax revenues and reduced costs in public health, crime, and welfare payments if the number of high school dropouts among 20-year olds in the U.S. today, which numbers more than 700,000 individuals, were cut in half ”


Fantastic and heart breaking article about the drop out crisis in the United States

Article about the economic ripple effect caused by the high rate of high school dropouts

Annotated Bibliography

C., Collins, James. Good to Great Why Some Companies Make The leap and Others Don't. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001. Print. As we have discussed in class, sometimes the best advice comes from unexpected sources (Mr.Chinosi’s example of bringing in the air force to talk to business students). Although this book is technically about companies it also has a lot of great advice on what allows for a lasting impact and what causes failure which relates to my research.

Chall, Jeanne S. The Academic Achievement Challenge What Really Works in the Classroom? New York: Guilford, 2002. Print. This book addresses the fact that many educational reforms and innovations that have been employed over the past century have failed and why. The book compares achievement rates that result from traditional and instruction-based approaches with those resulting from progressive and student-centered methods. Chall argues that instruction-based approaches result in higher achievement overall with particular benefits for children of lower socioeconomic status. This is interesting to me because I have found a lot of evidence on the contrary to Chall's view in that progressive methods often yield better results.

Chubb, John E., and Tom Loveless, eds. Bridging the Achievement Gap. New York: Brookings Institution, 2002. Print. This book explores the achievement gap between white students and African American and Hispanic students in the United States.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay, 2002. Print. The premise of this book is the idea that many of the problems we face behave like epidemics. This logic is applicable and may prove helpful to my study of the achievement gap and drop out crisis.

Hirsch, E. D. The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. New York: Anchor /Doubleday, 1999. Print. This book argues that the educational establishment has done irreparable harm to America's students through the establishment of practices that have curtailed the desire to learn.

Jencks, Christopher, and Meredith Phillips. The Black-White Test Score Gap. New York City: Brookings Institution, NY. Print. The book explores the far-reaching social and economic consequences of the educational gap between African Americans and Whites. This book gives interesting historical context to the issue.

Kopp, Wendy. One Day, All Children The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Print. I think that her story is fantastic, inspirational and motivational. One of the most helpful books I have read so far in terms allowing me to see how much is possible when people are dedicated to positive change in the education system.

Morrish, Ron. With All Due Respect Keys for Building Effective School Discipline. Grand Rapids: Woodstream, 2000. Print. Violence, underachievement, disrespect and disruption are major issues in today's schools and how they are prevented/delt with relates to my research. This book is about practical and effective strategies that prevent these issues.

Ravitch, Diane. Left Back A Century of Battles over School Reform. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print. This book argues that schools fail when they consistently ignore their central purpose of teaching knowledge.

Thernstrom, Abigail, and Stephan Thernstrom. No Excuses Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print. This book will prove helpful in terms of explaining the relationship between the achievement gap, dropout crisis and race.
Harry K., and Rosemary T. Wong. The First Days of School How to Be an Effective Teacher. Minneapolis: Harry K. Wong Publications, 1997. Print. This book is a collection of tips for teachers. I chose it because I would like to learn more about what the criteria is for a good teacher vs. a bad teacher since good teaching is obviously connected to the achievement gap and dropout