At more than 6 million students, California’s public school population is enormous. It is also enormously diverse. In its schools, the state has a majority of minorities, with Hispanics/Latinos making up the largest student group.
More than one in five children in California live in poverty, and nearly half of all K–12 students participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal programs offered in schools to students from low-income families. In addition, one quarter of California’s K–12 students are English learners.
Test Results Show Persistent Gaps Between Student GroupsThe academic success of all California students—and of public education in general—is often measured by how well students perform on standardized tests. Results from a wide variety of state and national tests administered over the last half-century have been fairly consistent in at least one respect. They indicated that certain groups of children repeatedly score below children in other groups.
On the and California’s own standards-based tests ( ), poor students, African Americans and Latinos, and English learners are over-represented among students scoring at the lowest levels and under-represented among the highest scoring. Other measures of student achievement—including dropout and graduation rates, completion of the required for eligibility to the state’s four-year universities, and college admissions—reveal similar achievement patterns between these groups of students and their peers. These results are important because they predict later success, including students’ ability as adults to secure jobs that pay a living wage.
These achievement gaps between poor and non-poor, among various ethnic groups, and between non-English speakers and their English-speaking peers have over several decades been the catalyst for many laws, initiatives, and education reforms.
Many Factors Contribute to the Achievement GapThe achievement gap stems from both home- and school-based factors. It exists before students ever cross the school threshold, and this disadvantage can greatly affect their educational progress and success.
Students living in poverty tend to be less successful in schoolThe National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a national study of children entering kindergarten in 1998. It found that students whose mothers had not graduated from high school, whose families received public assistance or were headed by single parents, and/or whose parents’ primary language was not English were disproportionately represented among low performers. All of these factors correlate highly with poverty.
Although poverty does not cause low achievement, it does set the conditions for it. Students living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to factors known to affect achievement, such as:
- Lack of access to proper nutrition, health care, and decent housing; and
- Exposure to substance abuse and high-crime communities.
Not to be overlooked are social factors and processes that play an enormous role in determining a child’s later learning and future academic success. High family stress levels, maternal depression, little interaction with the child, and family illiteracy all have a negative impact on a child’s developing capacity to learn.
Because African Americans and Latinos in California represent disproportionate numbers of children living in poverty, they are also more likely to begin school at a disadvantage.
Cultural factors can also affect student performanceThe cultural background of both students and educators can also play a role in student achievement. First, it is well documented that some educators have lower academic expectations for students of color. This has been a topic of much discussion over the past decades, and attempting to change teachers’ attitudes and practices is at the heart of the standards-based reform movement.
Beyond this complex and pervasive problem is another issue—how the values and expectations of students’ backgrounds and communities influence their attitudes about schooling and academic performance.
The extent to which culture affects attitude and achievement is a politically sensitive and controversial subject. The variables most consistently correlated with low student achievement are poverty and low parent education level. Yet even among students coming from poor families, some cultural groups generally outperform others in school. And among wealthier students, some groups of students—for example, middle-class African American males—consistently lag behind their white classmates.
Researchers differ regarding the causes of these gaps. Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg has found that although Asian students associate negative life consequences with poor school performance, African American and Hispanic students do not. University of California-Berkeley professor John Ogbu argues that community-based “folk theories” contribute to self-defeating behaviors. (An example of a folk theory would be that because of the history of discrimination against African Americans, even those who work hard will never reap the rewards that whites do.) Others theorize that the efforts of even the most supportive parents and communities can be undermined by teens’ need for peer approval.
Schools can play a role in narrowing the gapA driving force in education reform for decades has been optimism that schools can help students overcome the disadvantages they bring with them into the classroom. For more than 40 years, researchers have conducted extensive investigations to determine which school factors influence student achievement. However, results of this research point to complex interactions among multiple factors, indicating that the solutions are neither simple nor straightforward.
The state and federal movement toward a standards-based approach to school improvement begins with the assumption that all students can meet high academic expectations. Based on that assumption, a fundamental strategy has been to shed light on the achievement gaps that exist between groups of students. Evaluating what combination of educational strategies, resources, capacity-building, and incentives can contribute to better academic performance among low-performing students continues to be a focus for educators and researchers. Meanwhile, policymakers have crafted accountability systems that put increased pressure on the schools and school districts that are currently falling short in helping all their students meet rigorous new achievement goals.