Achievement Gap Explained

Feb 25, 2017 by

School leaders more than anyone else understand the emphasis on testing and improving student achievement due to increased state and national levels of accountability. When educators discuss how to increase student achievement, a point of concern is the achievement gap. This occurs in any community that includes a diversity of students, that is, every school in the United States.

No one thought about the achievement gap until the twentieth century. Prior to 1950, all white children were encouraged to attend school and to do their best. Black American children attended separate schools which were assumed to be good enough compared to those attended by white children. Immigration with the influx of Latinos and Asians and its impact in the public schools was yet to come.

Identifying Cause of Achievement Gap

What causes this achievement gap? Many people are happy to provide simplistic answers. The schools are failing their job. Black children are less intelligent than children of white parentage. We don’t spend enough money on education, period. Students show, however that the causes for this persistent achievement gap are far more complex, than the way single answer would indicate. Research tells us that there are numerous factors, involved in creating the achievement gap. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) in a 2009 study for example identifies 13 societal and education factors that are relevant to the study of what causes this gap.

The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in California has researched the achievement gap, in an effort to address the problems involved. They synthesize the causes along these general lines:

Family Involvement

Cultural Differences


Grouping Arrangements

English Language Acquisition


The question remains, how does each of these factors affect the achievement of children in school?

Family Influences and Involvement

What we know:

Education Next explains that research states parental education is the single strongest correlate of student success in schools, including how long they stay in school and their future success in life.

Research has shown a clear link between parent involvement and children’s success in school. Further, studies have also demonstrated a correlation between parent involvement and children’s educational development and subsequent intrinsic academic motivation (Gottfried, Fleming, & Gottfried, 1994).

Children of color who often come from families in the lower socio economic ranges particularly need the schools to provide the best possible learning opportunities. Unfortunately, their neighborhood schools tend to offer less in terms of resources, the quality of instruction and a demanding curriculum. Nor are the teachers in these schools especially well-prepared to meet the needs of culturally diverse students.

Moreover, the children’s families are not prepared to supplement what the schools fail to offer. Commonly, both parents work hard to make a living for the family.  They usually don’t have high levels of educational achievement themselves, and their homes are not filled with books or other reading material. Although television is present in almost all homes, it does not provide the source of enrichment that it might.

These parents may feel uncomfortable dealing with teachers and hesitate to enter the school itself. They are seldom in a position to help their children learn, for example, guiding their performance of homework. The home probably does not provide the best environment for studying.  Children who live in such homes enter school with experiential backgrounds that may not match academic assumptions, a factor that affects their ability to perform well on standardized tests.

Cultural Differences

Many students of color have trouble fitting into the school culture.

Teachers are often ill prepared to build on the abilities of these children, seeing them as disruptive compared to White children. Nor are teachers apt to allow for the variety of learning styles present in a classroom with children from diverse backgrounds.

Teachers avoid cultural difference due to the fact that they do not understand the culture of their students. Roux and Molier explain that teachers cannot teach what they do not know.  Therefore, their students’ cultures are undervalued. The issue for educational leaders and educators is how to create a thriving classroom for everyone to learn in a school setting. One of the first things that you realize is that these students come to school with a lot of challenges. They are under a lot of pressure and stress. This is their first experience in which they are immersed in English, some of them are academically prepared, but some are not. They do not have the English language proficiency even if they are American students from a minority: African-American or Native American students. Marginalized students explain that they feel isolated because they do not have the support network in the schools. Do schools provide a sense of belonging? Do they help prepare students academically?

School leaders can remedy this by simply having teachers shadow other more experienced teachers in the same building or school district. Principals can also provide training on how to teach with a repertoire so as to reach all students.


Research reveals that teachers’ expectations of how children will perform in school often influences students’ actual performance. Teachers who are not experienced and or well informed may have stereotyped ideas about what children can be expected to do.

Research has shown that teachers base their expectations on both objective (e.g., students’ past achievement) and subjective (e.g., teachers’ prejudices) information. Students’ early performance and gender predicted teachers’ expectations, with higher expectations for high achieving students and girls. According to some authors, expectations can also be based on students’ social class and ethnicity. Here it is critical for educational leaders to offer adequate staff development for teachers to engage in diversity training or provide multicultural educational opportunities.

Grouping Arrangements

There is a question whether grouping according to ability levels and or tracking might be a determent to the achievement level of children from minority groups. There is the consideration of whether the same methods and materials can or should be used for all students in a class.  Again, teachers commonly are not well-prepared to deal with the many problems they face in teaching a class of such diverse learners.

English Language Acquisition

Since most instruction in United States schools is conducted in English, the level and quality of students’ ability to speak and write English is another important factor influencing their achievement levels. Here, again, the home is involved as many students use languages other than English at home. Even African American students, who would most likely speak English at home, may lack an extensive vocabulary and fluency in educated English.

The controversy about bilingual education continues. Many educators still regard knowledge of a second or third language as a handicap rather than an asset. Few teachers are equipped to teach bilingually. The increasing number of Latino native speakers of Spanish, for example, are at a disadvantage in our schools. So also are other immigrant children from homes that speak languages other than English.

Here then are major factors that impede high levels of achievement of large groups of students who attend our public schools. Overcoming the achievement gap that has been clearly identified is a challenge for our schools and for the public in general. How educational leaders engage with teachers, students and the school community leads to increased academic achievement for these students. How we educate staff and students is critical to the growth and benefit of our society.

Keywords: Achievement Gap, School Leaders, K12, family involvement, cultural differences, English language acquisition, ELL, ESL

Comment Below on: What effort, if any, has your school or district taken to address the essential causes of the achievement gap?


Barton, Paul and Coley, Richard. (2009). Parsing the Achievement Gap. Education Testing Service. Retrieved from:

Egalite, Anna. (2016). How Family Background Influences Student Achievement. Education Next. Retrieved from:

Gottfried, A. E., Fleming, J. S., & Gottfried, A. W. (1994). Role of parental motivational practices in children’s academic intrinsic motivation and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(1), 104-113.

Meeuwse, Krist.  (2016). Closing the Achievement Gap Using Ipads. The Education Advocate.  Retrieved from:

Roux, J. and Molier, T.  (2002). No problem! Avoidance of cultural diversity in teacher training South African Journal of Education. Retrieved from:

Speybroeck, Sara, et. al. (2012). The Role of Teachers’ Expectations in the Association between Children’s SES and Performance in Kindergarten: A Moderated Mediation Analysis. National Institute of Health. Retrieved from:


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