Academic journal article International Education Studies

The Racial, Ethnic, and Social Class Achievement Gaps: A Systems Analysis

Academic journal article International Education Studies

The Racial, Ethnic, and Social Class Achievement Gaps: A Systems Analysis

Article excerpt


This system dynamics analysis draws on the literature to outline the factors commonly discussed as predictive of and, perhaps, causally related to problematic differences in academic achievement among students who vary in race, ethnicity, and social class. It first treats these as a wide-ranging set of exogenous variables, many of which interact with each other, all of which influence academic achievement. "Causal-Influence Diagrams" are drawn to show these complex interactions. Then a distinction is drawn among the "traditional" school, the "gap-closing" school, and the "exceptional" school.

In a subsequent section of the paper, variables that are not a part of the internal institutional system of schooling are mostly stripped away. In this section, a typology is presented and a distinction is drawn between two generic types of schools in contrast to what might be called the "traditional" school: the "gap-closing" school and the "exceptional" school.

Keywords: Achievement gap, School reform, School improvement

1. Introduction

1.1 The Problem

The long-documented differences in academic achievement between low-income, African American, and Latino students in general, on the one hand, and more affluent students of European and Asian origins, on the other hand, are important both because they undermine American economic productivity and because they challenge, in the long term, the cohesion and stability of the American social order.

1.2 A Systems Analytic Theory of the Problem

There is an extensive literature on these racial, ethnic, and social class achievement gaps in the United States (see, in particular, Miller, 1995; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Kober, 2001; McKenzie & Company, 2009; Murphy, 2010). In this paper I present a tentative theory of the systemic interconnections among the variety of predictive and causal factors of these achievement gaps identified in that literature. I say "tentative" because, while a great deal of work has been done in identifying and assessing the relationship of individual factors to student academic achievement, little is known of the interactions among them and close to nothing is known with empirical certainty about the reciprocal causal effects of what, in fact, is a multitude of variables. For well-known and good reasons, only a small fraction of the studies reported in the literature are experimental. The vast majority of the claims that are made about the relationship of various factors to academic achievement are predictive, not demonstrably causal. In my judgment, in most cases the relationships are indirect and interactive, involving various confounding variables. Many of the studies are entirely or substantially qualitative in any case.

There is an old saying in ecological studies that "you can't do one thing at a time." My reading of the literature on the achievement gaps convinces me that the same is true in the field of education, particularly with reference to closing these achievement gaps. It is useful to focus-as is common in the literature-on particular factors such as teacher quality, early childhood education, resilience, parenting practices, language development, and school leadership. However, it is important to note that despite some fluctuations over decades, and despite some relatively isolated case examples to the contrary, racial, ethnic, and social class achievement gaps have proven to be stubborn and lasting.

I believe that there remains-as a basis for truly informed policy formulation-a pressing need to put this collection of individual factors together into a systemic whole. I take the position in this essay that only on the basis of a holistic, dynamic, interactive understanding of what might be called the "achievement-gap problem system" can reasonable policy choices be formulated and assessed. I would add, as I comment later, that problem systems analysis also provides critical insights into the state of the relevant knowledge base and the remaining research requirements with respect to the focal problem. …

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