The achievement gap: What early childhood educators need to know
by Barbara A. Langham
Perhaps the most important challenge in education today is how
to overcome the achievement gap. Although generally applied
to public schools, the achievement gap is an issue that early
childhood educators in both the public and private sectors
need to know about and understand.
The reason is simple: Early care and education will likely play an increasingly
critical role in attempts to close the gap.
What is the achievement gap?
The achievement gap is the lagging academic performance of one
group of students compared to another. Usually it refers to
the lower scores of blacks and Hispanics compared to whites,
and the lower scores of low-income students compared to upper
or middle class students on standardized tests and other measures
of educational achievement.
One recent national report, for example, said the average math
scores of black 9-year-olds lagged behind those of their white
peers by 22 to 32 points on a 0-500 scale during the years from
1978 to 2004. Scores of black youngsters rose during the period
from 192 to 225, but black students did not catch up to whites,
whose scores also rose (National Center for Education Statistics
Besides test scores, the gap can describe the difference in other
measures such as high school completion, enrollment in advanced
courses, and enrollment in college. A recent Texas report, for
example, said that only 54.2 percent of Hispanic seventh graders
in 1995 went on to graduate from a Texas public high school,
compared with 61.3 percent of all students (Texas Higher Education
Coordinating Board 2009)
In analyzing such gaps, one can compare performance measures
not only by race/ethnicity and income but also other categories
such as grade level, age, gender, and enrollment in public or
private schools. With respect to age, for example, one recent
national report of long-term trends found that since the early
1970s the average reading and math scores for all 9- and 13-year-olds
have increased. Scores for 17-year-olds, however, have remained
about the same (National Assessment Governing Board 2009).
On the positive side, analysts have noted improvements and a
narrowing of gaps on many measures. What’s disturbing,
however, is the persistence of gaps and the question of whether
we will ever close them.
Why does it matter?
Some may assume achievement gaps are a problem only for those
in the public schools or for the families whose children are
But the fact is that these gaps affect all of us. Our system
of public schools is a fundamental institution of American society.
For generations, public schools have educated the vast majority
of our people and prepared them for the workforce. Schools have
helped create a sense of community and enabled us to participate
in a democratic society.
As education advocate Tom Luce (1995) has pointed out, our future
is “inextricably tied” to the future of our public
schools. Anyone concerned about crime, jobs, and taxes, he says,
should be concerned about our schools.
Crime. About 75 percent of the nation’s state prison inmates
are high school dropouts. On average, it costs roughly $22,600
a year to house an inmate compared to $9,644 a year to educate
a child who stays in school (Alliance for Excellent Education
2006). “We can pay now for quality education,” says
Luce, “or pay later for dead-end warehousing of people
who contribute little beyond crime and violence.”
Jobs. Half of all jobs today require education beyond high school.
Another third require a college degree (The Workforce Alliance
2009). Gone are the days when a hard-working young man or woman
could drop out of school, go to work in a factory or a store,
and earn enough to provide for a family.
Equally worrisome, employers in recent years have complained
about the lack of basic skills in prospective employees. According
to the National Commission on Adult Literacy (2008), more than
half of the U.S. workforce face at least one education barrier:
limited English proficiency, no high school diploma, or no college.
The need for an increasingly skilled workforce means that schools
must educate all children. It also means that schools must encourage
more girls and minority students to study science, math, technology,
Taxes. According to Census data, the average annual income of
a high school dropout is $18,900 a year compared to $25,900 for
a high school graduate and $45,400 for a person with a bachelor’s
degree (Day and Newburger 2002). As the saying goes, “The
more you learn, the more you earn.”
When students perform well in school, they’re more likely
to stay off the streets and out of unemployment lines as adults.
With more education, students become taxpayers instead of tax
consumers. In addition, more workers earning higher incomes—and
thus paying more taxes—can contribute to the Social Security
trust fund, which today’s workers expect to draw upon in
But the consequences of the achievement gap go beyond crime,
jobs, and taxes. McKinsey & Company (2009), an international
consulting firm, cites two others.
Health. Less educated people tend to have less healthy lifestyles,
especially when it comes to smoking and obesity. In addition,
because they are less likely to have health insurance, they have
less preventive care and therefore require more emergency room
care when a disease or chronic condition reaches an advanced
stage, thereby driving up health costs.
Economy. Low educational attainment slackens invention and productivity
of workers, lessening the nation’s potential output and
slowing its growth. Simply stated, significant gaps in achievement
between and across various groups of students drag down the nation’s
economy, in effect, creating “the equivalent of a permanent,
Finally, the achievement gap raises an ethical and moral issue.
Is it right that some students get stuck in a cycle of poverty
because they can’t get a good education? “There is
no better way to ‘love thy neighbor,’” says
Luce, “than by helping to create schools in which all our
children can flourish and realize their potential.”
Teachers have long recognized that students from poor, disadvantaged
families did worse in school than students from more affluent
families. In 1966, sociologist James Coleman, in a pioneering
use of test scores, documented the achievement gap between white
and black students. Although Coleman’s findings might seem,
on the surface, to suggest a racial component to the gap, later
researchers have determined that the overriding factor is economic
status, rather than race.
One major insight from Coleman’s study was the huge impact
of a child’s family background on later school performance
In the years since, researchers have studied the gap from two
perspectives: the schools and early childhood. Of the massive
research conducted, the studies reported below represent only
Closing the gap: K-12 schools
In the 1950s, schools began receiving increased attention, notably
with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 and
new emphasis on math and science courses. Other changes followed.
Civil rights. The achievement gap is often considered a vestige
of slavery and segregation. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in
Brown v. Board of Education declared that segregated schools
denied equal educational opportunity to black children. Desegregation
came slowly and in some cases only by court order, resulting
in forced busing of students in large cities.
With forced busing came white flight, the exodus of white families
to private schools or to public schools in suburban areas. As
the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, housing patterns changed
too, and busing was phased out. By the 1990s, many large public
schools had become racially and ethnically imbalanced again,
this time with high proportions of black and Hispanic students.
Poverty. Americans have long regarded education as the ticket
out of poverty. In 1965, in the federal government’s first
foray into public K-12 schooling, Congress passed the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Title I of the act directed
funding at improving education for poor students (Hanna 2005).
The law has been reauthorized many times, with amendments that
expanded aid to students with language barriers and students
Improving education alone, however, was not enough. As recent
experience has shown, reducing poverty also requires a healthy
economy and plentiful jobs. Economists argue that workers in
low-wage jobs can rise out of poverty if given work supports,
such as an increased minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit,
assistance with health care, and subsidized child care (Bernstein
Schools in decline. Public schools have always had detractors.
In the mid 1960s, for example, Boston educator John Holt, in
How Children Fail, asserted that schools made children afraid
of giving wrong answers and being mocked by teachers and their
friends. His ideas and those of others opposed to compulsory
school attendance helped give rise to homeschooling (HoltGWS.com
By the 1970s the effectiveness of public schools had come into
question. One indication was a steady decline in college admission
test scores. Public support also faltered, notably in 1978 with
California’s Proposition 13. The ensuing taxpayer revolt
adversely affected the budgets of many school districts across
the country (Sack 2005).
In 1983, a federal commission claimed that the “average
achievement of high school students on most standardized tests
is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.” The
report, A Nation at Risk, contained this often-quoted line: “If
an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America
the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might
well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed
this to happen to ourselves.”
A number of states instituted school reforms. These included
a more rigorous curriculum, periodic testing, extended school
day and year, career ladders for teachers, and better campus
At the end of the decade, state governors called for national
education goals to be met by 2000. The first goal: “All
children will enter school ready to learn.” Congress made
those goals the centerpiece of the Educate America Act in 1994.
When the millennial year arrived, however, many observers agreed
the goals had been far too ambitious (Rothstein 1999).
In 2001 Congress passed another iteration of ESEA, the No Child
Left Behind Act. Title I continued funding to enhance education
of low-income students, but the law’s main emphasis had
shifted to standards, testing, and increased accountability for
the academic achievement of all students.
Effective schools. Even before reforms were put in place, some
public schools, despite the challenges of poverty and racial
imbalance, were outperforming others.
Two researchers who studied this phenomenon, Larry Lezotte and
Ronald Edmonds at Michigan State, found that effective schools
had common characteristics: 1) instructional leadership, 2) clear
and focused mission, 3) safe and orderly environment, 4) climate
of high expectations, 5) frequent monitoring of student progress,
6) positive home-school relations, and 7) opportunity to learn
and student time on task (Edmonds 1982). Many schools began striving
to incorporate these traits.
Alternative programs. Rather than forcing integration, some
public school systems in the late 1960s created magnet schools
to “attract” a diversity of students to a specialized
curriculum. Magnet schools thrived, in part because enrollment
was by choice. By the 2001-2002 school year, there were 3,100
magnet schools in the United States (Rossell 2005).
Beginning in 1991, several states, led by Minnesota, passed legislation
authorizing charter schools. These schools received public funding
but were exempt from certain state or local regulations so they
could experiment with innovative methods. In the 2006-2007 school
year, the nation had more than 4,100 charter schools, most of
which served large proportions of black and Hispanic students
(National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.).
Four charter schools—as well as one Catholic school and
a neighborhood public school—were profiled by David Whitman
in Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City
Schools and the New Paternalism (2008). All six secondary schools had been successful in raising
students’ test scores. Whitman described them as “paternalistic” because,
like a firm, but loving father, they maintained discipline and
urged hard work to reach high expectations.
Some groups decided that choice and private schools were the
answer. In 1990 the city of Milwaukee started a voucher system
that allowed low-income families to enroll their children in
private schools (U.S. Department of Education n.d.).
In studying schools, educators could not escape one critical
fact: The achievement gap existed before children started school.
According to current figures, for example, the cognitive skills
of 4-year-olds who live below the poverty line are 18 months
behind what is typical for their age group. By age 10, they’re
still behind (Klein and Knitzer 2007).
It’s no surprise then that many educators focused on the
child’s early years, including the home and family.