Achievement Gap - Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education, New York University

Pedro Noguera || August 2013

The term “achievement gap” is commonly used to describe the disparities in academic outcomes and variations on measures of academic performance that tend to correspond to the race and class backgrounds of students. Though such disparities are by no means new, in recent years the effort to “close the achievement gap” has become something of a national crusade. Politicians and private foundations have exhorted educators to take urgent steps to close the gap and put an end to this social scourge. Former president George W. Bush went so far as to accuse those who thought the gap could not be closed of practicing “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” While it is not clear what he meant by this, it is clear he strongly believed it could be done.

With “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB) requiring states since 2001 to collect and disaggregate data on student achievement by race and other characteristics, awareness about pervasive academic disparities has grown. As a consequence, achievement data in schools and districts throughout the nation have been publicly revealed and discussed. However, thus far, public discussions about racial disparities in achievement have done little to actually close the gap or prompt widespread improvement in the nation’s schools.  Dropout rates remain high, particularly among black and Latino males in urban areas, and thousands of schools have been labeled as “failing”.  US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has announced that he does not believe schools in the United States will achieve the NCLB mandate of bringing all children to academic proficiency by 2014, and has agreed to grant states waivers from some of the NCLB mandates. Though there has been no formal surrender declared, there now appears to be a growing realization that the achievement gap will not be eliminated any time soon.

It takes more than a clever slogan or public pressure to close the achievement gap, but unfortunately under NCLB those are about all schools have received. Over the last eleven years, federal and state governments have mandated the use of standardized tests to hold students and schools accountable. More recently, policy makers have called for higher national standards to prevent states from gaming the system (by adopting lower standards for passing standardized exams) and forty-five states have adopted a federally approved “common core” curriculum. However, neither the states nor federal government has provided schools with guidance on what they should actually do to reduce disparities in student achievement. Moreover, in a retreat from previous commitments when Title I (now called No Child Left Behind) was regarded as a civil rights statute intended to provide supplemental aid to economically disadvantaged children, there is almost no mention of the fact that racial segregation has grown in America’s schools and failure rates are most pronounced in the areas where poverty is concentrated.
Close examination of the persistent and widespread disparities in academic outcomes that correspond to the race and class backgrounds of students reveals that they are actually a multidimensional phenomenon related first and foremost to larger patterns of inequality in society.  Family income and to a lesser degree parental education, continue to be the strongest predictors of academic performance.  Additionally, gaps in academic performance are closely tied to unequal access to quality early childhood education (the preparation gap), inequities in school funding (the allocation gap), and differences in the amount of support well-educated, affluent parents can provide to their children versus poorer, less-educated parents (the parent gap).

It should be clear that neither pressure nor a narrowed focus on test preparation will work in eliminating the achievement gap or in substantially raising achievement levels for all students.  We must acknowledge the ways that other inequities—in income, health, housing, etc.—interact with learning outcomes, and recognize that the real work that must be done is to find ways to ameliorate these obstacles as well.

In a small but growing number of schools across the country, educators are working closely with community-based non-profits, churches, universities and local businesses, to expand learning opportunities for students and address the non-academic issues – nutrition, safety, health, etc. that impact learning and child development.  When carried out in concert with improvements in teaching, increased parental involvement, and substantial enhancements in the learning environment, such efforts make it possible for schools to experience genuine and lasting gains. 

We must learn from examples of success that exist in various parts of the country and we must stop relying on pressure and humiliation as reform strategies.  Creating schools where gaps in achievement can close is critical to our future and we must not pretend that that goal can be realized without addressing the inequities in our society that harm the welfare and development of children, and undermine the schools they attend.

Dr. Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University.  Dr. Noguera is a sociologist whose scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.  Dr. Noguera holds faculty appointments in the departments of Teaching and Learning and Humanities and Social Sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development.  He also serves as an affiliated faculty member in NYU’s Department of Sociology.  Dr. Noguera is the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings (IGEMS).  

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