Current Issues: Closing the Achievement Gap in the United States
Educators across the United States are struggling to close the achievement gap — the differences in performance among various groups of students. While race, ethnicity and poverty play prominent roles in the U.S. achievement gap, gender, family stability and student interest in subjects like math and engineering also contribute.
While some see narrowing the gap as a moral and social good, others focus on the economic benefits of producing a greater number of high-performing workers. Whatever the motivation, several initiatives are working on bringing underperforming students up to speed. The most prominent examples include:
- No Child Left Behind Act: Though the act is often derided for its reliance on testing, its provisions have also made it easier to quantify the achievement gap in the United States. The program’s requirement that schools break out test results according to race, gender and other demographic categories may actually magnify the disparities between the different groups.
- Increasing early childhood education: Some research shows that preschool programs like Head Start are more effective at improving school performance than those implemented later in a child’s life.
- Reducing class size: Since it’s easier for teachers to give extra attention to a lower number of students, some districts have decreased their class sizes. The smaller classes are also easier to keep under control, which can make a big difference in the ability to pass on knowledge.
- Implementing teacher standards: These programs aim to improve the quality of teachers.
- Adding computers and other technology in classrooms: Studies show that students do better when they have access to the Internet and other computer-based technology.
- Implementing Direct Instruction: Direct Instruction is a teaching method that uses an explicit and systematic formula for education. A behavioral script and analysis are also emphasized. While there is debate over the efficacy of government-funded program that used this method, it is important to note that some of the highest-achieving majority-black and poor schools still practice it.
- Increasing female interest in math, engineering and other STEM subjects: The actual performance gap between boys and girls in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — is fairly small. The problem is that girls tend to shun these subjects. Therefore, closing the gap involves getting girls interested in taking extra STEM subjects.
More details and other factors
While many current programs have benefits in theory, they often do not pan out as expected. Technology, for example, can require a substantial investment that makes it too expensive for students who need it most: the underprivileged. Thirty percent of American homes are believed to lack broadband internet access, so even if the school has computers, opportunities for home practice can be limited.
Attempts to raise the quality of teaching staffs are also hampered by a lack of funds. Many inner-city school districts are known for paying low salaries, so the best teachers often go elsewhere. Tenure is another challenge because it makes it hard to fire underperforming teachers.
Preschool and early childhood programs are one bright spot in the efforts to close the achievement gap. Head Start has shown good results in bringing children up to speed as they enter their main educational career.
One notable positive trend in the achievement gap appears in high school. Between 1990 and 2009, black students went from taking the least amount of course hours to the most. This increase in the willingness to add courses shows that attitudes have changed for the better since the end of the last century.
Also, more girls are enrolling in non-mandatory STEM classes and starting careers in related fields. While the gender gap is still quite evident, female scientists are not nearly as rare as they were in decades past.
While it is clear that there are still prominent achievement gaps in the United States, it’s also clear that some of these programs are working. Persistent and dedicated effort by school systems and educators should help to reduce the gap even more.