Overcoming the Achievement Gap

This is one of the most important tasks we need to achieve as educators if we are to move forward with education reform and truly leave no child behind. Some of the information is repetitive if you have read the other pillars of education reform posted, but it is such an important topic that it bears repeating.

One of the biggest challenges facing educators today is the achievement gap. The achievement gap is considered to be the significant difference in test scores, academic fluency and graduation rates between Caucasian students and other minorities.  Being a Caucasian student does not, by itself, place a student outside the achievement gap.  The achievement gap has been linked to social-economic factors as well. It is typically associated with minority students in urban areas.  It is important to understand what schools can do to combat the achievement gap individually since there is no national policy or strategy in place, with the exception of a few unfunded mandates in NCLB, to help schools overcome the achievement gap. It is important to understand that the achievement gap is a national problem, not just a local one or a state problem.  In 2007 all 41 states that provided data showed an achievement gap in mathematics, only four states reported any narrowing of the gap between 1990 and 2007 (Vanneman, 2009) .  Right now less than 17% of African American and Latino students will finish high school and go on to graduate from a college. In high-poverty inner-city schools, an A is often equal in college-preparedness to a C or D from a more affluent suburban high school. America ranks 15th among 27 countries in percentage of students who complete a college degree, this is less than several less developed countries (Statistics on the Achievement Gap, 2009).  If the gap is not overcome, the youth of America will not be able to compete in a global economy and America will decline.

According to one research study conducted the strategy used the most in schools to overcome the achievement gap is tutoring (Day, 2007).  Many schools offer in school during school hours tutoring programs to help students overcome deficiencies and close the achievement gap.   Many schools target tutoring towards specific areas defined as lacking by the standardized test scores.  Tutoring is also often used after school and on weekends.  It is not surprising that tutoring is one of the most common strategies used it is one mandated by NCLB.    There are both pros and cons to using tutoring to overcome the achievement gap.  The pros are straightforward, extra time spent with individual students to overcome deficiencies does help increase individual test score in the areas the student is being tutored in.  The cons of tutoring are the time and expense.  If the tutoring is done in school during school hours the students are missing being educated in one subject are to make up for deficiencies in the area they are being tutored in.  If the tutoring is being offered after school or offsite it can be problematic for parents who have schedules to make.  Tutors also have to be paid.  If the tutor is being provided by the school that tutor is often, and in some cases mandated, to be a certified teacher.  If that tutoring is happening after school by a teacher that worked that day that expense increases as that teacher, by union contract, must be paid overtime. The same is true for teachers working on the weekend providing tutoring services.

Effective teaching strategies are another way to help close the achievement gap.  Effective teaching strategies include individualized instruction, small group or centered learning; project based learning and differentiated instruction.  There are many pros to these methods. Similar to tutoring, the individualized learning is a learning program that is tailored to the needs of the individual student. This one on one interaction has been proven to help students digest information and increase test scores. A con to this method is that the time staff is working with that student on a one on one basis; their attention is not on the class as a whole.  Another con is budgetary.  If more than one teacher is placed into a classroom for this purpose, those other teachers need to be paid as well.  Small group or centered learning has the same pros and cons as individualized instruction.  The added benefit is that the other students in the center or small group can support and promote each other.  A con is this is a perceived stigma by other students.  These groups are usually based on standardized test scores and academic achievement. Students do not want to be seen as being in the inferior or subnormal group.  Project based learning has many pros and few cons.  The pros are that a student is usually motivated to do the project since the student usually has some input on the project that they are completing.  The student is also supported by the other classmates doing the project.  Project based learning has many assessment points that can track student comprehension and growth.  The con of project based learning is that it is a relatively newer concept and rubrics vary differently so assessment can be very subjective (What Works in Education, 2010).

Another way of helping students overcome the achievement gap is staff related. Analyzing test results can show schools where their teaching staff is strong and where they are weak.  If students with a certain teacher consistently do poorly in math, those students can be sent do a different instructor for math while other students can be brought in to the first teacher in the subject area where his or her strengths may lay.  Professional development is another way instructors can be taught to help their students overcome the achievement gap.  Teachers can be shown new ways to reach students or new ways to teach information.  Educating teachers in multicultural education methods may help them understand their pupils better and find new and creative ways to reach them. The benefits of these methods are self evident; a teaching staff that knows its strengths and weaknesses can target students to its strengths and work on those weaknesses. Having teachers that are multicultural aware enables those teachers to work proficiently with a majority of students.  The cons are expenses.  It is expensive to train teachers and hire people to come in and work with teachers (Perkins, 2009).

The achievement gap is not just a school problem although schools take the brunt of the responsibility.  One way schools can combat this perception is to get parents involved in multiple ways.  Parental involvement has been shown to improve academic performance of students and raise test scores and abilities (Barnard, 2004).  The first is to get parents involved in their child’s education as a partner, more than just attending parent/teacher conferences. Parents must feel it is their responsibility to help educate their child.  Another way is to offer adult literacy courses.  It is hard for a parent to help a child if they have had little education or are not literate themselves.  Once again the benefits are evident; if the parent is involved the achievement gap for that student is lessened.  If the schools offer adult education courses and parents attend, the parent will better themselves and may lead to a better job and the ability to be more involved in their child’s education.  The major con of this is the parent’s schedule.  Many parents work more than one job and are unable to be involved in either their child’s education or take the time to get an education of their own (Heymann, 2000).

A final way to help students overcome the achievement gap is for schools to share with each other what works and what does not. It is surprising, however, that many schools do not share or put up barriers to sharing information (Fullan, 2001).  Schools need to realize that they are not alone and can ask other schools for ideas and help.  Several websites have cropped up to help schools and individual teachers find what works such as Edutopia founded by George Lucas (Edutopia Home Page, 2010).  The pros are that teachers and schools do not have to re-invent the wheel as far as finding new methods to help close the achievement gap.  The con is that not a lot of schools allow for this kind of collaboration and at this time the content is not as much as it should be on websites like these.

The danger for society of not closing the achievement gap cannot be stressed enough.  Our students are no longer just competing against students in our country but students around the world as well.  If the gap is not overcome America will lose its place as a superpower and will look to other countries the way other countries used to look towards America. There are teachers and schools working on eliminating the gap around the country.  Further study is needed on ways to overcome the gap to add to the arsenal that is all ready out there.  Schools must take action to recruit parents and share their knowledge in order to truly help begin to close the achievement gap.


Barnard, W. M. (2004). Parent involvement in elementary school and educational       attainment. Children and Youth Services Review , 39-62.

Day, C. a. (2007). Successful principal leadership in times of change: An International perspective. New York: Springer.

Edutopia Home Page. (2010). Retrieved December 5, 2010, from Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/

Fullan, M. G. (2001). The new meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers       College Press.

Heymann, S. J. (2000). Low-income parents: How do working conditions affect their opportunity to help school-age children at risk? American Educational Research Journal , 833-848.

Perkins, D. (2009). Making Learning Whole. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Statistics on the Achievement Gap. (2009). Retrieved December 4, 2010, from Edwin Gould Foundation: http://www.edwingouldfoundation.org/News/Index.aspx?pgid=25

Vanneman, A. H. (2009). Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, (NCES 2009-455). Washington D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

What Works in Education. (2010). Retrieved December 4, 2010, from Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/teaching-module-pbl-how

Leave a Reply