Academic journal article High School Journal

Examining Disparities in Mathematics Education: Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap?

Academic journal article High School Journal

Examining Disparities in Mathematics Education: Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap?

Article excerpt

The so-called achievement gap in mathematics is refrained as a problem of unequal opportunities to learn experienced by many low-income students and many Latino and African American students. First, data are presented showing striking and persistent differences on standardized tests among students of different ethnic groups, and socioeconomic levels. Then evidence is presented demonstrating that opportunities to learn mathematics are not equally distributed among all students. Specifically, data show that African American, Latino, and low-income students are less likely to have access to experienced and qualified teachers, more likely to face low expectations, and less likely to receive equitable per student funding. The final section discusses how teachers and schools can provide more equitable opportunities to learn mathematics for all students.


Finding a proper way to frame a problem gives us not only a better understanding of it but also impacts the ways in which we address the problem and make efforts to solve it. For example, in medicine it is important not only to address the symptoms of a person's illness, but also to treat the underlying cause. When a child has a high fever due to an infection, it is not enough to give the child treatment to bring the temperature down; it is crucial to give the child medicine to combat the infection. Likewise in education, while it is important to recognize a symptom such as low achievement, it is even more critical to understand and address its underlying causes. Changing the way in which the disparity of performance in mathematics among different groups of students in our schools is flamed as a problem can lead to a productive investigation into understanding the causes for these disparities and how to address them.

There are considerable differences in performance on national and state mathematics tests between different groups of students, the most commonly examined comparisons being by ethnic group and income level. Often the unequal performance of Latino and African American students compared to European American students is described as an achievement gap. It is not uncommon to see statements like the following:

   Students of color continue to lag behind white students and some
   Asian students, and the so-called academic achievement gap still
   exists. (A state superintendent of public instruction, as quoted by
   Heftier, 2006)

   Across the U.S., a gap in academic achievement persists between
   minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts.
   (National Governors' Association, 2005)

What kind of images do we form about the students who lag behind after reading such statements? What kind of assumptions, conscious or subconscious, do we make about their capacity for learning? Do we ask why their performance is worse? Stopping with only an examination of the symptoms often leads too easily to a focus on student characteristics as the cause.

Blanket statements about the low performance of certain groups of students in our schools without mentioning the underlying causes may reinforce prejudices and stereotypical images. Unfortunately, such prejudices are not uncommon, with some authors even claiming that Latino and African American students are less teachable. For example, Greene and Foster (2004) state that being minority is a disadvantage students bring to school and claim that as the percentage of White (non-Hispanic) students decreases in a school, the "teachability index" decreases, too.

In developing a better understanding of the problem of low achievement in mathematics, I first present data that show striking and persistent differences in performance on state and national assessments between different groups of students in our schools. Following this description of the symptom, I examine data related to opportunities to learn in an effort to better understand the underlying causes of the "achievement gap. …

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