Are Education Achievement Gaps Based on Poverty?

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Are “achievement gaps” caused by K-12 schools and the teachers in them? Many policymakers, including those at the U.S. Department of Education, seem to think so, because Race to the Top federal grant applications in 2010 wanted states to hold teachers accountable for student test scores. Indeed, the purpose of the four-year State Plan in education, submitted in 2017 without legislative or public approval by a state’s department of education or public instruction, is to close these gaps.

Why? Because closing gaps is the major purpose of the Every Student Succeeds Act, approved by Congress in December 2015 as a re-authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No one in Congress apparently noticed that whoever wrote this 1,000-page bill had given this 2015 re-authorization a purpose that wasn’t in the original bill. The 2015 re-authorization omitted the need to strengthen public education — a purpose that was clearly in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965.

Moreover, in addition to giving ESEA a purpose not in the original act, the 2015 bill didn’t tell states how the “gaps” were to be closed (i.e., by percentages or raw numbers), or between what groups (i.e., between African-Americans and Hispanics, or between “whites” and “Asian-Americans”). This is a far more important question for the average citizen to ask than he or she thinks. The bill might not have received unanimous approval in both the Senate and the House if the following three facts were known in 2015:

1)  That the largest number of low-income children in this country are white. The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University finds more “white” children in low-income families than any other racial group.

2)  That many low-income Hispanic families are headed by illegal immigrants but are not identified as such. 

3)  That many African-American and Hispanic K-12 students are not low achievers. (See here and here, for instance.) As national and international test scores indicate, about 25 percent of American students are low achievers, but African-Americans and Hispanic students in 2016 constitute about 41 percent of our K-12 students.  

High-income families may spend a lot of money (such as through tutorials or summer camps) to upgrade their low-achieving children. But there is no body of credible and clear evidence showing how successful these efforts are. Could the federal government mandate and pay for tutorials and summer camps for all low achievers in low-income families? Policymakers want “gaps” closed between Hispanic and African-American students and other non-Asian students in this country without clarifying what is meant by a gap. The U.S. Department of Education could declare the gaps closed next week by defining the gap in raw numbers for the children of American citizens, including those of legal immigrants.

Regardless of how academic “gaps” are deemed closed and what groups are involved, what can the schools do besides spending the money in the categories required by the bills? They know that the needle has barely moved since 1965 on the demographic categories schools have been told to use since then. Nothing much has happened in 50 years to upgrade academically low-achievers in low-income families despite all the Title I money to their schools from the federal government and other money from private foundations.

In fact, educators in education schools and in professional development organizations have come up with almost consistently ineffective ideas, called “strategies” or “education reforms,” if we judge by empirical results on national and international tests. Their ineffective ideas have attracted lots of money from politicians eager to spend public money on fly-by-night schemes they claim address low achievement —schemes that seem to benefit only the companies advocating for them.

Is that the best Congress and the federal education officials can do?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.