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Persistent Achievement Gap Blocks Students Success

Jun 10, 2011

One of the major challenges facing U.S. educators is the achievement gap that exists between white and minority students. While many efforts have been made to help close the divide in learning, education statistics reveal that much work remains to be done. Learn about some of the potential reasons for the achievement gap - and what's being done to address it.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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An National Education Epidemic

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) serves as a kind of report card on how well schools are academically serving students. The assessment, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, reports on areas that include reading, math, science and writing. The NAEP examines American schools' effectiveness in educating children in the interest of providing insight that can help guide future education policies and initiatives.

For many years, a troubling trend has been observed in the results of the NAEP: There is a wide disparity in achievement levels between white and minority students in the United States. White students outperform black peers in each assessment, with average scores that are at least 26 points higher in every subject on the latest assessment. Peggy Carr, an official with the Department of Education, suggests that this gap represents the equivalent of 2-3 years of education.

The picture of disparities between white and Latino students is also bleak. Students from this minority group make up about one quarter of school-age children in the U.S., but their education attainment levels are the lowest in the country. A recent report from the Obama administration shows that only about half of Latino students earn their diploma on time, and that these high school graduates are half as likely to be prepared for college than white peers.

Factors in Learning

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The reasons behind disparities in white and minority students' school achievement have been explored by many education researchers. Dr. Ronald Ferguson, head of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, is among the most prolific and respected authorities on the topic. Ferguson travels around the country visiting racially mixed schools in an effort to identify why the achievement gap persists, despite so many efforts to close it. Each year he measures the performance, behaviors and perspectives of up to 100,000 students in the nation's schools.

In his research, Ferguson suggests that half of the gap is largely the result of economic circumstances at work in communities. While poverty has long been correlated with poor school performance in depressed socioeconomic areas, Ferguson has found that disparities can also be found between white and black students in wealthy suburbs. He believes that the other half of the gap is the result of black parents being less focused on children's academics than white parents, a potentially controversial finding softened by the fact that the researcher is himself black and a father of three schoolchildren. 'I don't want to be another one of those people lecturing black parents,' Ferguson says. 'I tell them we in the black community - we - need to build stronger intellectual lives at home.'

Similar economic and household dynamics may be at play in the achievement gap observed between white and Latino students, researchers suggest. Potentially exacerbating the situation is the fact that more Latino students are attending schools with limited English skills, making it difficult for them to fully demonstrate their knowledge within content areas. Lack of access to education programs is also thought to be a contributing factor. One telling statistic from the recent report by the Obama administration shows that less than half of Latino youths are enrolled in early learning programs, far fewer than white children, which could also help explain the divide in achievement.

Educators across the country are trying a wide variety of measures to help narrow the education gap that exists between white and minority students. Early childhood education is seen as an important focus of these efforts, as is greater investment in schools located within low-income neighborhoods. Some charter schools, like the Amistad Academy, have tailored their education programs to create environments where minority students can thrive. Public-private partnerships, after school programs, college prep courses and improved teaching are also routinely forwarded as potential solutions to help narrow the gap. As school reforms are debated around the country, these measures are increasingly being seen as a way forward to help ensure all American children are receiving a a quality education.

Education reform is a hot topic around the United States. Learn about the future of the school reform movement and what that might mean for classrooms.

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