Myths and reality of the achievement gap

Mano Singham, a theoretical physicist and associate director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, Case Western Reserve University, asserts that the gap between white and minority achievement is part of a larger problem: the underachievement of students in general.

The gap in achievement between minority and white students has been attributed to a number of causes, such as biased standardized tests, socioeconomic differences, lack of motivation, negative peer pressure, and poor teaching in minority schools. However, Singham contends that studies of students who finish college reveal that the most important factor in predicting their success is high school curriculum. Research has shown that the impact of the curriculum on post-secondary academic success is much greater for minority students than it is for white students. Improving the high school curriculum has a disproportionately positive effect on traditionally underachieving students. Advanced mathematics courses, in particular, increase high school and college graduation rates.

Singham reports that a recent study of the Pittsburgh schools by Alan Schoenfeld analyzed the results of implementation of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Pittsburgh’s high schools have 56 percent minority students and 44 percent white; and 60 percent of the students are from low-income families. Schoenfeld’s study shows that Pittsburgh has made coherent efforts to implement standards-based education in mathematics and other subject areas over the last 10 years.

Schoenfeld’s analysis distinguishes between teachers and schools that are strong implementers of the reform curriculum and those that aren’t. The study compared the mathematic performance of students in schools in which all the teachers were considered strong implementers as opposed to schools in which only a few teachers were strong implementers of the reform curriculum. The results showed that strong implementation of the reform curriculum significantly narrowed the gap between whites and minorities while increasing the performance of both groups in all categories. In schools with strong implementation, scores for whites increased 50 percent and scores for minorities increased 150 percent on the basic-skills portion of the test. On problem solving, white scores increased 200 percent and minority scores 700 percent. On mathematics concepts, white scores increased 200 percent and minority scores 900 percent.

Serious, sustained effort needed

Singham concludes that the results in Pittsburgh demonstrate that good teaching improves student achievement and helps close the gap at the same time. But it takes a serious, sustained effort to provide all-round good teaching. In the Schoenfeld study it took about 10 years of support and professional development involving collaborative study, observation, knowledge of curricula, and lesson refinement. The results in Pittsburgh demonstrate that the impact of the teacher is greater for minority students. The National Research Council’s book “How People Learn” provides guidelines for long-term professional development. Research suggests that effective teachers need content knowledge, generic teaching skills and pedagogical content knowledge. Besides specific content knowledge, effective teaching requires generic teaching skills such as the ability to organize well-structured lessons, create conditions for enhancing motivation in students and provide corrective, neutral feedback to students. In addition, teachers need to have pedagogical content knowledge in the specific subject being taught. Because students’ preconceptions about a subject inhibit learning, teachers need to understand and take into account these subject-specific obstacles.

Singham concludes that focusing on the gap between white and minority students has not proved productive. Low achievement is not a minority problem exclusively; the problem is the underachievement of most students. He believes that the achievement gap we must focus on, is the gap between current student achievement and what we believe students should be achieving. Improving teaching increases achievement for all while reducing the gap between students.


“The Achievement Gap: Myths and Reality”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 84, Number 8, April 2003, pp. 586-591.
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Published in ERN June 2003 Volume 16 Number 5

One Response to “Myths and reality of the achievement gap”

  1. Shereen Khan

    I am in total agreement with your viewpoints. I am currently doing my doctoral dissertation and defined the gap in the same way as you did, looking at the difference in performance between the low achievers and the high achievers in mathematics with the intention of identifying strengths and weaknesses of both groups. But, midway in my analysis I began to question why mathematics is the subject used to separate students. Although it is my discipline, I wondered that if Spanish was used instead I would have been at the bottom end of the normal curve and I would not have turned out to be successful in school. I was never good at memorising. On the other hand,some of those who chose mathematics because they had good memory turned out to be poor mathematics teachers when they could have ended up in another discipline and been more successful. I agree that we should try to improve achievement in all subjects and guide students to develop their true potential, rather than focusing on mathematics only.

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