The U.S. Achievement Gap (OpEd Piece)

In the United States, there is a term referred to as the “Achievement Gap.” This gap refers to the sizable difference in academic performance between whites and people of color. Many people mistake that racial differences are the problem, but race is merely a symptom. An underlying cause points to segregation based on socioeconomics, concentrating the poor in urban areas where their wealth, health, resources and opportunities are limited based upon the financial situations surrounding them and stunting their potential from early on.

So, how do we as a society battle this and improve education and our overall intellectual health?

Since as early as the 1930’s in the United States, banks and federal housing agencies have allowed for practices such as redlining, which has resulted in the segregation of whites and people of color, concentrating the people of color within major cities.[1] This kind of practice not only impacts the overall financial health of these individuals but their physical, psychological and social health as well. Children from impoverished families tend to experience lower birth weights which impact the overall health of the child, as well as medical and nutritional availability.[2]

These three factors alone impact the overall physical health of a family. They can also have a strong impact on the neurological and academic development of a person. By taking large numbers of people who suffer from these and bundling them together into neighborhoods where they struggle to help themselves, little-less their own neighbors, this creates a larger problem.

Segregation breeds xenophobia and racism, creating dislike and distrust between whites and people of color, which impacts the self-image of non-whites. People of color who grow up in poor neighborhoods tend to have lower self-images than their white/wealthier counterparts. This kind of negative self-image can impact the psychological and emotional health, decreasing motivation levels and understanding of one’s own potential, which can have a direct impact on academic success.[3]

What can be done to help with the self-image of these students?

First, an adaptation in school curriculum could help.[4] To think about the scientists and historical figures that we studied in school, or the authors of the texts that we read, the majority of them are probably white (and male, but that’s a whole other topic). That is not to discredit the successes and accomplishments of these figures, however, schools could increase the quantity of study of non-white figures. Mae C. Jemison, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ernest Everett Just, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Sacagawea, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Sojourner Truth are a few names of figures that could use more emphasis in school curriculum. Reading and writing about people of the same ethnicity as the students learning about them could have a positive psychological impact on those students. In the same vein, an increase in teachers-of-color in urban schools could also have a similar impact.

If segregation is the problem, can’t we just desegregate schools?

Simply put, yes. However, the solution isn’t so simple. Studies have shown that schools with well-balanced diversity (both racially and socioeconomically) tend to have higher graduation rates, higher test scores, and lower dropout rates.[5] Wake County in North Carolina actually desegregated the entire county by bussing students all over, some of them having two-hour commutes to school. Although seemingly harsh, the objective was to balance so that every school in the county did not exceed over 40% of the student population living in poverty.

The results were astronomical in academic growth overall. State-based standardized tests were being passed at a rate higher than the state average.[6] The only downside to this story is that due to its own success, a massive influx of impoverished families moved to Wake County, throwing the 40% balance off, and eventually lowering its success. Although not at its pinnacle, Wake County’s school district is still considered a strong model for success. 

One of the most seemingly successful solutions for closing the achievement gap is through early education programs and affordable summer programs.[7-8] Students who grow up in poverty generally miss out on enriching experiences like pre-schools, museums, science centers, art galleries, or even just safe and colorful playgrounds. These places provide a plethora of stimuli which help develop an understanding of the world, as well as physical brain development. Especially in children from birth to three years of age, external stimuli such as colors, smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds all help neurological development.[8] An increase in early education can help boost this development.

If these issues are properly addressed, children from poor communities can increase their academic success and lead to improved socioeconomics. It is important for communities to somehow desegregate themselves based on financial well-being, whether by distributing students, or mingling them in after-school or summer programs, or developing subsidized early education systems. If they can, we could see not only the closing of the achievement gap but an overall increase in our physical, educational, and social health, which can eventually lead to improved financial health.

Share your comments at the bottom of the page.

Whatismyhealth, Chris Kulmann © 2018

Special thanks to our sources:

[1] Martin, L.L. & Varner, K.J. 2017. Race, residential segregation, and the death of democracy: Education and myth of post-racialism. Democracy & Education, 25(1) 1-10.

[2] Berliner, D.C. 2009. Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder
and Tempe: Education and the public interest center & education policy research unit. Retrieved from:

[3] Rodríguez, B. A. 2014. The threat of living up to expectations: Analyzing performance of Hispanic students on standardized exams. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 13(3), 191-205

[4] Ani, A. 2013. In spite of racism, inequality, and school failure: Defining hope with achieving black children. The Journal of Negro Education, 82(4). 408-421

[5] Kucsera, J. V., Siegel-Hawley, G. & Orfield, G. 2014. Are we segregated and satisfied? Segregation and inequality in southern California schools. Urban Education, 50(5). 535-571

[6] Grant, G. Hope and despair in the American city: Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh. Harvard university press. 2009

[7] Condron, D. J. 2009. Social class, school and non-school environments, and black/white inequalities in children’s learning. American Sociological Review, 74(5). 683-708

[8] The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (2017, January 2). Babies exposed to stimulation get brain boost. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 11, 2017 from