Breaking down the achievement gap

By Michelle Chen Apr 23, 2009

Two new studies parse the academic achievement gap on several dimensions—race, socioeconomic status and geography—yet the statistics barely scratch the surface. Analyzing the school systems of the country’s 50 largest cities, Cities in Crisis 2009—a report published by a youth-focused advocacy campaign called the America’s Promise Alliance—shows an “18 percentage point urban-suburban gap” in high school graduation rates. Despite notable gains in urban graduation rates in recent years, about 53 percent of high school students in the 50 cities obtained a diploma, compared to the national average rate of 71 percent. The study estimates that roughly 280,000 students in these cities left high school last year without a formal diploma. But while the study focused on geographic disparities, the racial gap in graduation rates was even starker: American Indian, Black and Latino students graduated at rates of 51, 55 and 58 percent, respectively, compared to 78 and 81 percent for whites and Asians. A cruel cycle entwines educational gaps with economic inequality. A separate study by the management consulting firm McKinsey evaluated various achievement gaps—between black and Latino students and white students, between high and low income students, and within states or even within districts. McKinsey found that these divides translate into potentially hundreds of billions of dollars in lost gross domestic product as well as social disparities later in life, in health and civic participation. But no matter how you cut the data, such studies offer only a surface view, skirting the structural underpinnings of unequal achievement. Concentrated poverty and housing segregation in urban areas severely limit access to quality schools, especially in communities of color. According to the National Education Association’s brief on the dropout crisis:

Almost 2.4 million students—about one in six Black and Latino students—attend “hyper-segregated” schools in which the student population is 100 percent of color. Overwhelmingly, these schools educate high percentages of students from low-income homes and produce low graduation rates and academic outcomes.

A 2005 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that in southeastern states, a much larger portion of Black students attended schools with low graduation rates, compared to their white peers. Conversely, research by the Century Foundation reveals that moving students from low-performing schools into “middle class” schools could help close achievement gaps. Improving the schools themselves, as opposed to shifting students into “better” classrooms, poses a more complex challenge. But the Foundation also points to the successes of school reform efforts in New Jersey. The state has targeted resources toward improving teaching and learning for poor students of color in early childhood, well before youth have a chance to fall into dropout statistics. Both the McKinsey report and Cities in Crisis provide disturbing snapshots of the achievement gap, but focusing on high school diplomas or material outcomes doesn’t quite tell the whole story. As long as educational opportunity tracks the same race and class faultlines plaguing the entire social infrastructure, many kids growing up amid failing institutions and low expectations will see little reason to stay in school. Image: Tony Dejak (AP)