HELPING ALL STUDENTS ACHIEVE: CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
By Kati Haycock
To increase the achievement levels of minority and low-income
students, we need to focus on what really matters: high standards,
a challenging curriculum, and good teachers.
There's been a lot of talk lately about the achievement gap
that separates low-income and minority youngsters from other
young Americans. For more than a generation, we focused on improving
the education of poor and minority students. Not surprisingly,
we made real gains. Between 1970 and 1988, the achievement gap
between African American and white students was cut in half,
and the gap separating Latinos and whites declined by one-third.
That progress came to a halt around 1988, however, and since
that time, the gaps have widened.
Although everybody wanted to take credit for narrowing the gap,
nobody wanted to take responsibility for widening it. So, for
a while, there was mostly silence.
But that is changing. Good. Because if we don't get the numbers
out on the table and talk about them, we're never going to close
the gap once and for all. I worry, though, about how many people
head into discussions without accurate data. And I worry even
more about how many education leaders have antiquated—and
downright wrong—notions about the whys beneath the achievement
I want to respond to both these worries by putting some crucial
data on the table and by sharing what both research and experience
teach us about how schools can close the gaps between groups
of students. Most of the data are from standard national sources,
including the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), as
well as from states and local school districts that have been
unusually successful at educating poor and minority students.
Understanding Achievement Patterns
The performance of African American and Latino youngsters improved
dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s, however,
were another matter. In some subjects and at some grade levels,
the gaps started growing; in others, they were stagnant (National
Center for Education Statistics, 2001).
- Reading achievement among 17-year-old African Americans and
Latinos climbed substantially through the 1970s and 1980s,
but gaps separating them from other students widened somewhat
during the 1990s.
- The patterns in mathematics achievement look similar for
13-year-olds, with the African American and white gap reaching
its narrowest in 1990 and the Latino and white gap narrowing
until 1992, and the gaps widening thereafter.
In 1999, by the end of high school:
- Only 1 in 50 Latinos and 1 in 100 African American 17-year-olds
can read and gain information from specialized text—such
as the science section in the newspaper (compared to about
1 in 12 whites), and
- Fewer than one-quarter of Latinos and one-fifth of African
Americans can read the complicated but less specialized text
that more than half of white students can read.
The same patterns hold in math.
- About 1 in 30 Latinos and 1 in 100 African Americans can
comfortably do multi-step problem solving and elementary algebra,
compared to about 1 in 10 white students.
- Only 3 in 10 African American and 4 in 10 Latino 17-year-olds
have mastered the usage and computation of fractions, commonly
used percents, and averages, compared to 7 in 10 white students.
By the end of high school, in fact, African American and Latino
students have skills in both reading and mathematics that are
the same as those of white students in 8th grade. Significant
differences also persist in the rates at which different groups
of students complete high school and in their postsecondary education
- In the 18- to 24-year-old group, about 90 percent of whites
and 94 percent of Asians have either completed high school
or earned a GED. Among African Americans, the rate drops to
81 percent; among Latinos, 63 percent.
- Approximately 76 percent of white graduates and 86 percent
of Asian graduates go directly to college, compared to 71 percent
of African American and 71 percent of Latino graduates.
- Young African Americans are only about half as likely as
white students to earn a bachelor's degree by age 29; young
Latinos are only one-third as likely as whites to earn a college
degree (see fig. 1).
Figure 1. Highest Educational
Attainment for Every 100 Kindergartners
|(Ages 15 to 29)
|Graduate from high school
|Complete at least some college
|Obtain at least a bachelor's degree
| Source: U.S. Census Bureau. (1998). Educational
Attainment Detailed Tables, October CPS
What's Going On?
Over the past five years, staff members at the Education Trust
have shared these and related data on the achievement gap with
hundreds of audiences all over the United States. During that
time, we've learned a lot about what people think is going
When we speak with adults, no matter where we are in the country,
they make the same comments. "They're too poor." "Their
parents don't care." "They come to school without an
adequate breakfast." "They don't have enough books
in the home." "Indeed, there aren't enough parents
in the home." Their reasons, in other words, are always
about the children and their families.
Young people, however, have different answers. They talk about
teachers who often do not know the subjects that they are teaching.
They talk about counselors who consistently underestimate their
potential and place them in lower-level courses. They talk about
principals who dismiss their concerns. And they talk about a
curriculum and a set of expectations that feel so miserably low-level
that they literally bore the students right out the school door.
When we ask, "What about the things that the adults are
always talking about—neighborhood violence, single-parent
homes, and so on?"—the young people's responses are
fascinating. "Sure, those things matter," they say. "But
what hurts us more is that you teach us less."
The truth is that the data bear out what the young people are
saying. It's not that issues like poverty and parental education
don't matter. Clearly they do. But we take the students who have
less to begin with and then systematically give them less in
school. In fact, we give these students less of everything that
we believe makes a difference. We do this in hundreds of different
Let me be clear. It would help if changes were made outside
of schools, too: if parents spent more time with their children,
if poverty didn't crush so many spirits, and if the broader culture
didn't bombard young people with so many destructive messages.
But because both research and experience show that what schools
do matters greatly, I'll concentrate on what works in education.
Lesson 1: Standards Are Key
Historically, we have not agreed on what U.S. students should
learn at each grade level—or on what kind of work is
good enough. These decisions have been left to individual schools
and teachers. The result is a system that, by and large, doesn't
ask much of most of its students. And we don't have to go far
to find that out: Ask the nearest teenager. In survey after
survey, young people tell us that they are not challenged in
The situation is worse in high-poverty and high-minority schools.
For the past six years, our staff at the Education Trust has
worked with teachers who are trying to improve the achievement
levels of their students. But while we've been observing these
high-poverty classrooms, we've also looked carefully at what
happens there—what kinds of assignments teachers give,
for example—compared to what happens in other classrooms.
We have come away stunned. Stunned, first, by how little is
expected of students in high-poverty schools—how few assignments
they get in a given school week or month. Stunned, second, by
the low level of the few assignments that they do get. In high-poverty
urban middle schools, for example, we see a lot of coloring assignments,
rather than writing or mathematics assignments. Even at the high
school level, we found coloring assignments. "Read To Kill
a Mockingbird," says the 11th grade English teacher, "and
when you're finished, color a poster about it." Indeed,
national data make it clear that we expect so little of students
in high-poverty schools that we give them As for work that would
earn a C or D anywhere else.
Clear and public standards for what students should learn at
benchmark grade levels are a crucial part of solving the problem.
They are a guide—for teachers, administrators, parents,
and students themselves—to what knowledge and skills students
Kentucky was the first state to embrace standards-based reform.
Ten years ago, the Kentucky legislature put out an ambitious
set of learning goals and had the audacity to declare that all
of its children—even the poorest—would meet those
goals. Leaders in Kentucky are the first to acknowledge that
they are not there yet. But their progress is clear and compelling.
And poor children are, in fact, learning in all subjects. For
example, in reading, 7 of the 20 top-performing elementary schools
are high-poverty; in math, 8 of the top 20 are high-poverty;
in writing, 13 of the top 20 are high-poverty.
Lesson 2: All Students Must Have a Challenging Curriculum
Standards won't make much of a difference, though, if they are
not accompanied by a rigorous curriculum that is aligned with
those standards. Yet in too many schools, some students are
taught a high-level curriculum, whereas other students continue
to be taught a low-level curriculum that is aligned with jobs
that no longer exist.
Current patterns are clearest in high schools, where students
who take more-rigorous coursework learn more and perform better
on tests. Indeed, the more-rigorous courses they take, the better
- In mathematics, students who complete the full college preparatory
sequence perform much higher on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) than those who complete only one
or two courses.
- The reverse is true of watered-down, traditional "vocational" courses.
The more vocational education courses students take, the lower
their performance on the NAEP.
- Although some of these differences are clearly attributable
to the fact that higher-scoring students are often assigned
to tougher classes, careful research shows the positive impact
of more-rigorous coursework even on formerly low-achieving
students. Since 1983, we've made progress in increasing the
number of students who take a rigorous, college-preparatory
curriculum. But the pace is not fast enough.
- Almost three-quarters of high school graduates go on to higher
education, but only about half of them complete even a mid-level
college-preparatory curriculum (four years of English and three
years each of math, science, and social studies). If we also
include two years of a foreign language and a semester of computer
science, the numbers drop to about 12 percent. The numbers
are worse for African Americans, Latinos, and low-income students.
These patterns are disturbing because the quality and intensity
of high school coursework are the most important determinants
of success in college—more important than class rank or
scores on college admissions tests (Adelman, 1998). Curriculum
rigor is also important for work-bound students (Bottoms, 1998).
A few years ago, the chancellor of the New York City schools
required all 9th graders to take the Regents math and science
exams. Though many people were worried that failure rates would
be astronomical, in one year the number of Latinos in New York
City who passed the Regents science exam tripled, and the number
of African Americans who passed doubled. Other groups also had
gains in science and mathematics. Did they all pass? No, they
didn't. But as a principal friend of mine used to say, "At
least they failed something worthwhile." And remember, these
youngsters previously would never even have been given a chance
to learn higher-order content.
Lesson 3: Students Need Extra Help
Ample evidence shows that almost all students can achieve at
high levels if they are taught at high levels. But equally
clear is that some students require more time and more instruction.
It won't do, in other words, just to throw students into a
high-level course if they can't even read the textbook.
One of the most frequent questions we are asked by stressed-out
middle and high school teachers is "How am I supposed to
get my students ready to pass the (fill-in-the-blank) grade test
when they enter with 3rd grade reading skills and I have only
my 35-minute period each day?"
The answer, of course, is "You can't." Especially
when students are behind in foundational skills like reading
and mathematics, we need to double or even triple the amount
and quality of instruction that they get.
Around the United States, states and communities are wrestling
with how best to provide those extras. Kentucky gives high-poverty
schools extra funds every year to extend instruction in whatever
way works best for their community: before school, after school,
weekends, or summers. Maryland provides a wide range of assistance
to students who are not on track to pass its new high school
graduation test. And San Diego created more time, mostly within
the regular school day, by doubling—even tripling—the
amount of instructional time devoted to literacy and mathematics
for low-performing students and by training all of its teachers.
Lesson 4: Teachers Matter a Lot
If students are going to be held to high standards, they need
teachers who know the subjects and know how to teach the subjects.
Yet large numbers of students, especially those who are poor
or are members of minority groups, are taught by teachers who
do not have strong backgrounds in the subjects they teach.
- In every subject area, students in high-poverty schools are
more likely than other students to be taught by teachers without
even a minor in the subjects they teach (see fig. 2).
- The differences are often greater in predominantly minority
high schools. In math and science, for example, only about
half the teachers in schools with 90 percent or greater minority
enrollments meet even their states' minimum requirements to
teach those subjects—far fewer than in predominantly
- The patterns are similar regardless of the measure of teacher
qualifications—experience, certification, academic preparation,
or performance on licensure tests. We take the students who
most depend on their teachers for subject-matter learning and
assign them teachers with the weakest academic foundations.
A decade ago, we might have said that we didn't know how much
this mattered. We believed that what students learned was largely
a factor of their family income or parental education, not
of what schools did. But recent research has turned these assumptions
upside down. What schools do matters enormously. And what matters
most is good teaching.
- Results from a recent Boston study of the effects teachers
have on learning are fairly typical (Boston Public Schools,
1998). In just one academic year, the top third of teachers
produced as much as six times the learning growth as the bottom
third of teachers. In fact, 10th graders taught by the least
effective teachers made nearly no gains in reading and even
lost ground in math.
- Groundbreaking research in Tennessee and Texas shows that
these effects are cumulative and hold up regardless of race,
class, or prior achievement levels. Some of the classrooms
showing the greatest gains are filled with low-income students,
some with well-to-do students. And the same is true with the
small-gain classrooms. It's not the kids after all: Something
very different is going on with the teaching (Sanders & Rivers,
Findings like these make us wonder what would happen if, instead
of getting far fewer than their fair share of good teachers,
underachieving students actually got more. In a study of Texas
school districts, Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson (1998) found
a handful of districts that reversed the normal pattern: Districts
with initially high-performing (presumably relatively affluent)
1st graders hired from the bottom of the teacher pool, and districts
with initially low-performing (presumably low-income) 1st graders
hired from the upper tiers of the teacher pool. By the time their
students reached high school, these districts swapped places
in student achievement.
El Paso, Texas, is a community that has taken such research
seriously. Eight years ago, despite the extraordinarily high
poverty of their city, local education leaders set some very
high standards for what their students should know and be able
to do. Unlike other communities, though, they didn't stop there.
At the University of Texas, El Paso, the faculty revamped how
it prepared teachers. New elementary teachers, for example, take
more than twice as much math and science as their predecessors.
More to the point, though, the teachers of these courses are
math and science professors who themselves participated in the
standard-setting process and who know, at a much deeper level,
what kinds of mathematical understanding the teachers need.
The community also organized a structure—the El Paso Collaborative—to
provide support to existing teachers and to help them teach to
the new standards. The collaborative sponsored intensive summer
workshops, monthly meetings for teachers within content areas,
and work sessions in schools to analyze student assignments against
the standards. The three school districts also released 60 teachers
to coach their peers.
The results are clear: no more low performing schools and increased
achievement for all groups of students, with bigger increases
among the groups that have historically been behind.
An Academic Core
El Paso and the other successful communities and states have
a lot to teach us about how to raise overall achievement and
close gaps. Each community, of course, does things a little
bit differently. What we learn is the value of a relentless
focus on the academic core. Clear and high standards. Assessments
aligned with those standards. Accountability systems that demand
results for all kinds of students. Intensive efforts to assist
teachers in improving their practice. And extra instruction
for students who need it.
Adelman, C. (1998). Answers in the toolbox. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Boston Public Schools. (1998, March 9). High school restructuring.
Bottoms, G. (1998). High schools that work. Atlanta,
GA: Southern Regional Education Board.
Ferguson, R. (1998). Can schools narrow the black-white test
score gap? In C. Jencks & M. Phillips (Eds.), The black-white
test score gap (pp. 318-374). Washington, DC: The Brookings
National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). NAEP summary
data tables [Online]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Education. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard
Sanders, W., & Rivers, J. (1996). Cumulative and residual
effects of teachers on future student academic achievement.
Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research
and Assessment Center.
Kati Haycock is Director, The Education Trust, 1725 K St.
NW, Ste. 200, Washington, DC 20006.
Reprinted with permission by the author.