Is Your Child Affected By the Education Gap?
Sep 23, 2011
After years of progress, the education gap has stopped closing. Over the past twenty years, the disparity in performance between different groups of students has either remained constant or worsened. In order to reverse this trend, it's useful to first understand the issue, then address the methods that have found success.
Understanding the Gap
Students of color and economically-disadvantaged students continue to lag behind their counterparts in K-12 education. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap in many academic areas was closing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, only to stall in the years since. For example, the gap in reading performance among African American and white 13-year-olds was cut in half between 1973 and 1990, but didn't budge between 1990 and 2008. The same stagnancy is evident among 9-year-olds in mathematics, with the gap remaining unchanged over the past two decades.
In some areas, the gap has widened since 1990. Among 17-year-olds, African American students cut the deficit with white students in half between 1973 and 1990, only to see approximately half of those gains disappear by 2008. The trend is similar among Latino students. Furthermore, there's often a direct correlation between race and class, with middle and upper class students continuing to vastly outperform students from lower income families.
What Are the Causes?
Education historian Diane Ravitch and Princeton University associate professor of African American Studies Angel Harris were recently featured on the National Public Radio (NPR) program ''Talk of the Nation'' to discuss what causes the education gap and how it can be closed. They noted that one of the main reasons the gap shrank during the 1970s and 1980s was the concerted focus by the government on listening to the available research and directly confronting the issue. Though controversial at the time, efforts to desegregate schools resulted in students of color beginning to catch up to their peers across the educational spectrum.
Since 1990, schools have faced increasing segregation. White students have left city schools for the suburbs, deepening the racial and economic divide. Additionally, class sizes have grown and standardized testing has surged in importance. As Diane Ravitch noted on NPR, African American children are particularly hurt by the lack of individualized attention that's found in larger classrooms. Likewise, standardized testing presumes that students learn and develop at the same pace and in the same way, which fails to accommodate for different resources, different backgrounds and different issues that affect students.
Closing the Gap
There are proven and effective ways to close the education gap. The most obvious method is to address the rampant disparity between predominantly African American and Latino schools and white schools. Providing schools with equal resources would help to boost low performing students. This is essentially what happened in the 1970s and 1980s, though the emphasis was on forcing students of different races and backgrounds into the same schools.
In general, addressing poverty on a large scale would have a major impact on the education gap. Students who underperform are often at a disadvantage before they're even born. It starts with improving prenatal health for economically-disadvantaged mothers, because the children of women who don't receive adequate care have a higher likelihood of learning disabilities. Then, before students start school, the availability of early education is paramount; students who enter elementary school with less preparation are at a disadvantage before they even begin.
Closing the education gap requires tackling poverty and racial inequality head on. This is daunting in a politically divisive climate, perhaps to the point of seeming hopeless. Yet the successes in the 1970s and 1980s prove that educational equality is possible.
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