Achievement Gaps and Systemic Poverty in Schools

At this point, the fact that there is an achievement gap between black and white students is well-documented, to say the least. Every single educational researcher is aware of it– it persists even when researchers control for background characteristics, meaning that the gap cannot be explained by factors like income and family structure alone. Most researchers take this to mean that there are systemic disadvantages faced by black students that prevent them from reaching the same level of achievement that their white colleagues do. The bigger question faced by researchers today is not whether there is an achievement gap, but why there is one, and what schools should be doing about it.

Schools have been actively trying to combat the achievement gap since the 1960s, with little long-term success so far. Even as civil rights and legal protections have been codified, the achievement gap has remained stubborn. Decades of efforts by policymakers to foster integration, smaller class sizes, a more diverse group of teachers, and more cultural sensitivity in schools have all seemed ineffective. The question of why the achievement gap has not narrowed despite our best efforts is a crucial one for opponents of educational inequality.

A fascinating article from the Washington Post details the results of a new report on the persistence of the achievement gap. The report, from the Economic Policy Institute, alleges that the issues of criminal justice and educational inequality are actually closely connected. Because black people, especially black men, are much more likely to be arrested than white people, even for the same crimes, there are negative consequences for black children. This fact, while seemingly self-evident, is often ignored by school authorities, who often don’t pay enough attention to the nuances of each child’s background.

So, given our contextualized knowledge of racial achievement gaps, how can educational policymakers react to the reality that many children have problems in their homes that reflect broad, complicated societal inequalities?

One thing that seems very important to me is recruiting new teachers who look more like the students that they are charged to teach. Having teachers from a variety of backgrounds shows disadvantaged kids that success isn’t restricted to people who look differently from them. A diverse pool of teachers would provide role models and encouragement to kids who may not feel very encouraged by many of the other systems of power in their lives.

Beyond recruiting different kinds of teachers, I think that it’s increasingly important that teachers take steps to combat the institutional disadvantages faced by children. I believe strongly that teachers who give copious amounts of homework every night, for example, should spend time thinking about whether or not students of all backgrounds will be able to complete the work. A teacher’s job should be to show students how capable they are, not to make them feel like they aren’t able to live up to expectations. In order to break the cycle of disadvantage perpetuated by institutions in this country, teachers must take decisive action to right wrongs and help kids feel empowered to deal with the challenges they face.

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