Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Confronting the Achievement Gap

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Confronting the Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

Why is there an achievement gap? Why has it persisted in spite of everything we've tried to do to eliminate or at least narrow it? What should we be doing? Mr. Gardner takes a hard look at these questions and offers some answers that we don't usually hear.


OVER THE course of 33 years, I have taught in schools with high concentrations of low-income families, children of color, and students and families who speak little or no English, and I have taught in schools in mostly affluent, white neighborhoods. The difference in achievement levels will surprise no one: high in the affluent, white schools; much lower in schools where poverty is common.

The question is, Why is this so? Why do so many urban minority students come into fifth grade with low skills in virtually every area? Many cannot add or subtract accurately; they don't know their multiplication and division facts; they can't write a decent paragraph or, in some cases, a decent sentence. Why do they have so much trouble reasoning out problems?

For example, during a discussion in an American history class made up of students from the South End of Seattle, I handed out tables that showed how much money was spent to educate white children in the South in the 1920s as opposed to how much was spent for black children. One of the tables showed a breakdown by county in Mississippi. I asked my students to find the difference in the amount spent for white students and black students in each county. Most of the students had a very difficult time even understanding what I wanted them to do. When they did grasp the concept, they had still more difficulty using the table to determine the answer. And even then most of the answers were wrong because of problems with subtraction. I posed questions about another table, asking students to identify a particular state. Most answered with dollar amounts.

When I ask why this should be so, I'm repeating a question that continues to be asked by educators, schools, parents, and communities across the country. Why is there such a large achievement gap between so many children of color and their white peers?

Of course, this quandary is nothing new. The gap dates back to the first mass-administered achievement tests given by the U.S. Army in World War I. Even as crude as those tests were, they measured an achievement gap between black recruits and white recruits that persists today, in spite of everything we have tried.

The first and most obvious response to my question is almost always unequal funding. Throughout most of our history the funding disparities between white schools and those serving children of color have been enormous. Scott Nearing, in Black America (from which I took the tables I used in the history lesson above), first published in 1929, documented these disparities as they existed in the South in the 1920s. (1) For example, in 1927, South Carolina spent $2.74 per "Negro" student and $27.88 per white student. Or even more astoundingly, Mississippi counties in 1926 averaged $3.59 a year per black student as opposed to $68.15 per white student. Nearing cited 162 kindergartens for white children in eight southern cities, but just eight for black children. All eight were in Kentucky: seven of them in Louisville, one in Lexington.

While disparities of that magnitude no longer exist, it's still true that affluent districts outspend their poorer counterparts. Ironically, though, even as funding disparities are reduced, the playing field for students of color remains badly tilted. Spending the same amount of money on each individual student harks back to a time when teachers would say, "I treat every student exactly the same." We know that notion has been discredited: all students are not the same, and to treat them as if they were does them a disservice. Funding schools as if all populations faced the same problems and had the same needs is an equally ineffective means of addressing the achievement gap. …

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