The achievement gap describes the differences in academic achievement between children of different groups or classes (income, racial, ethnic). The achievement gap can be understood from various sociological explanations:
The student groups most affected by performance gaps are African-American and Hispanic students compared to their non-Hispanic white counterparts, students with low socioeconomic status compared to their peers from higher-income families, and students whose native language is not English (Seeberg, 2021). However, achievement gaps can be identified and measured among many groups of students. While recent academic laws and policies have helped to close some achievement gaps for some groups, the achievement gap remains an important issue in education.
Parental socioeconomic status explanations involve income and financial differences and have a huge role in the achievement gap. Children living in poverty, for example, go to school with smaller vocabularies and fewer oral and written language skills than children who come from middle-class families. These students start their school years at a disadvantage, as they simply have more to learn. Other socioeconomic indicators focus on student success during and after high school. Data continue to show that fewer African American and Hispanic students graduate from high school than their white or Asian counterparts. Likewise, fewer students from high-poverty schools graduate than students from low-poverty schools. According to Hanushek et al. (2019), less than 10% of African American or Hispanic students took rigorous academic courses in high school in 2009. The achievement gap can also be predicted using some initial academic excellence indicators; IQ tests score or academic achievement tests.
The oppositional cultural thesis is an explanatory theory of the school behavior of young people belonging to cultural minorities. Relying on numerous studies, John Ogbu's theory has shown that the treatment of minorities in the global society is automatically reflected in their treatment in the education system. He distinguishes, to support his argument, between societies resulting from a process of "settlement" [Settler society] and societies resulting from a process of "colonization." Ethnic minorities are seen as voluntary in the former and involuntary in the latter. In Ogbu's model, even though there is a small group of successful individuals, young people in involuntary groups generally behave oppositionally in school (Sankofa et al., 2019). Academic success is seen as a negation of the group's cultural identity, which implements a real strategy of failure. In other words, the academic failure of pupils belonging to certain cultural minorities would be the result of a real strategy and not genetic, linguistic, or cultural deficiencies.
Social and cultural capital explanations involve the knowledge, skills, values, and norms students generally use to get ahead in education and life (open doors). Social and cultural capital can be seen in social classes (Hurley, 2020). There is a strong educational gap between the city and the countryside and between social classes. The neighborhood in which a person is born can affect, among other things, their future income, their longevity, and, perhaps more decisively, their academic achievements, all of which are interconnected. This is clearly evident in a new map showing how the United States population is distributed according to their educational level. Kyle Walker, professor of geography at Texas Christian University, created this interactive visualization tool.
Each point on Walker's map can represent between 25 and 500 people, depending on how much it can be zoomed in. These points are color-coded and refer to five educational categories. According to Walker, this map fits into the national debate on social and political polarization between metropolitan and rural areas. Those with college and graduate degrees tend to stay in the cities. In rural areas, on the other hand, high school diplomas are more common. Meanwhile, the map also reflects that, within metropolitan areas, the gap in educational levels is associated with racial and economic discrimination. In more than one case, the differences between each neighborhood are very marked.
Hidden curriculum explanations describe the unofficial, unwritten, and often unintended values, lessons, and perspectives learned in the school environment. A hidden curriculum may unconsciously result in grouping students within typical categories, shaping different perceptions and expectations of the teachers regarding student performance.
The belief gap, a concept originating in an experiment that Professor Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University did in 1964, is one of the ways the hidden curriculum can explain the achievement gap. Rosenthal randomly chose students from the San Francisco school to relate the teachers' expectations with student performance. He randomly chose a group of students and told the teachers that those students had significantly growing IQs. Then, he tracked teachers' and student performance for two years. After those years, these students ended up with a higher scores than the students who were not indicated in the intelligence tests. The reality is that they were students who received the most attention from their teachers, neither more nor less (Marsh, 2021). They were given more time to answer questions; they had greater acceptance by their teachers, and an environment with favoritism towards students developed, thus demonstrating the power of belief in the other.
The hidden curriculum promotes ineffective solutions related to interventions and programs that do not eliminate the root problem. This root problem is related to the beliefs, many times wrong, that some teachers themselves have. These beliefs are gradually converted into behaviors or measures that increase this supposed achievement gap instead of reducing it, such as educational support groups previously called "diversification groups," which often tend to convert these students into isolated and marginal groups within the school itself.
The most convincing sociological explanation of the achievement gap relates to the social and cultural capital dimensions. For example, this explanation is more visible in the explanation based on social differences. Indeed, lower-class African Americans do not do as well in school as middle-class African-Americans, just as lower-class whites do not do as well as middle-class whites. In other words, within each ethnic group, some differences favor the middle class. But when we compare blacks to whites, group differences transcend class boundaries. On average, African Americans fare worse than whites of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, lower-class whites do better in class than lower-class blacks.
Ongoing research and the implementation of programs and strategies designed to close the achievement gap show that students can overcome their many disadvantages and rise to match the performance of their peers. Several studies published since the NCLB approval show that performance gaps are narrowing across the country. The performance of African American and Hispanic students on the NAEP improved significantly between 1990 and 2007. Minority students are also improving school readiness measures, and studies show that broader access to technology has helped students in all groups to improve academic performance in critical areas. Still, performance gaps remain, and it is up to the educators and policymakers of today and tomorrow to identify them, get to the roots of the problems, and implement strategies to help students across all groups overcome them.