Opportunity Gap Harms Minority Students
Achievement disparities are often attributed to socioeconomic factors. According to 2009 data from the Census Bureau, of all children younger than 18 living in families, 15.5 million live in poverty, defined as a family of four with less than $21,947 per year. This includes 4.9 million, or about 10 percent, of non-Hispanic white children, and one in three black and Hispanic children, at 4 million and 5.6 million, respectively (Annie E. Casey Foundation 2011). According to a seminal study of language development in 1995, by age 3, children in poverty have smaller vocabularies and lower language skills than children from middle-income families.
Research has also shown that dropout rates tend to be higher for children who live in poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 Condition of Education report, about 68 percent of 12th-graders in high-poverty schools graduated with a diploma in 2008, compared with 91 percent of 12th-graders in low-poverty schools (NCES, 2011). A recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children who both live in poverty and read below grade level by 3rd grade are three times as likely to not graduate from high school as students who have never been poor (Hernandez, 2011).
Researchers have tried to pinpoint why race and class are such strong predictors of students’ educational attainment. In the 1990s, the controversial book, The Bell Curve, claimed that gaps in student achievement were the result of variation in students’ genetic makeup and natural ability—an assertion that has since been widely discredited. Many experts have since asserted that achievement gaps are the result of more subtle environmental factors and “opportunity gaps” in the resources available to poor versus wealthy children. Being raised in a low-income family, for example, often means having fewer educational resources at home, in addition to poor health care and nutrition. At the same time, studies have also found that children in poverty whose parents provide engaging learning environments at home do not start school with the same academic readiness gaps seen among poor children generally (U.S. Department of Education, 2000; Viadero, 2000, Sparks, 2011).
Education and school funding policies can exacerbate these opportunity gaps. Analyses by researchers at a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, and others have found that students in poverty and those who are members of racial minority groups are overwhelmingly concentrated in the lowest-achieving schools. For example, in California, black students are six times more likely than white students to attend one of the bottom third of schools in the state, and Latino and poor students are nearly four times as likely as white students to attend one of the worst-performing third of schools (EdTrust West, 2010).
Likewise, research has shown that good teaching matters (The Teaching Commission, 2004; Hanushek, Kain & Rivkin, 1998), and that poor and minority students tend to have less access to the most effective, experienced teachers with knowledge in their content field. One investigation of 46 industrialized countries found the United States ranked 42nd in providing equitable distribution of teachers to different groups of students: For example, while 68 percent of upper-income 8th graders in the U.S. study sample had math teachers deemed to be of high-quality, that was true for only 53 percent of low-income students (Braeden, 2008).
Some researchers also explored more subtle factors that contributed to achievement gaps such as peer pressure, student tracking, negative stereotyping, and test bias. Research also has shown that students from a disadvantaged group can perform below their normal ability when confronted with negative stereotypes about their group. For example, in 2009 the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice at Stanford University found that specific student groups underperformed in stereotypical ways on state exit exams—girls performed worse on math, for example, or students from Asian-American backgrounds scored lower on reading—suggesting that the high-stakes nature of the tests could contribute to students’ performance anxiety (Viadero, 2009).
In principle, the public has been behind closing the achievement gap, and schools have employed a variety of tactics to address it. Common reform recommendations have included reducing class sizes, creating smaller schools, expanding early-childhood programs, raising academic standards, improving the quality of teachers provided to poor and minority students, and encouraging more minority students to take high-level courses. Still, progress in reducing academic divides has been slow or nonexistent.
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