Rich vs. Poor Achievement Gap

For generations, America’s educational system strives to maintain a level playing field of opportunity for success. However, studies focusing on the past 50 years have shown a trend toward a very concerning gap in student achievement between wealthy and low-income families, according to a New York Times story published Feb. 9th.

The article explains that, “while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.”

In Alabama 58% of public school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. However, Alabama has proven that when schools focus on improving achievement through efforts like the Alabama Reading Initiative, impressive gains can be made.

In 2011, despite having a higher level of poverty than most states, Alabama met the national average in reading for the first time on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) for 4th grade reading.

On the national level, several studies* are brought together to illustrate the
widening gap in achievement. A book published September 2011 by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, “Whither Opportunity?,” details a grim forecast for the future of America’s young people who are living in low-income households.

The editors of the book, Greg J. Duncan and Richard Murnane, clarify that the problem is very complex and there is no single solution. But several factors are identified as contributors to the gap; resources (time & money), family composition, cultural conditions, and early childhood development opportunities.

Studies show that wealthier families tend to invest more time and money toward the education and enrichment activities of their children, and children in wealthier families tend to be exposed to more literacy activities than those in low-income families.

Also wealthier households are more likely to consist of two-parent income earners who can invest more time and money into their children’s education, while low-income households are more likely headed by single parents whose resources are tightly stretched.

The cultural conditions in communities are shown to affect the motivations and prioritizing of education. One study states that, especially during a recession, communities stressed by high-criminal activity, job losses, etc. tend to have a negative effect on overall student achievement in those community schools.

But some educators in Alabama are demonstrating that demography does not have to be destiny.

According to the Education Trust’s analysis of NAEP scores from 2003-2011, Alabama made the greatest improvements in the nation in fourth-grade reading scores overall, for African-American students and for low-income students.

Each year, Ed Trust identifies a group of high poverty schools in the nation with the Dispelling the Myth Award to recognize public schools closing the achievement gap and educating all of their students to high levels. Mobile County’s George Hall Elementary and Calcedeaver Elementary have been honored for this achievement.

By encouraging policy makers to expand programs like the Reading Initiative, pre-kindergarten and other innovative practices, Alabama could lead the nation in closing the gap and providing a stronger American workforce.

*Study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Gains and Gaps: Changes Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion,” by Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, NBER working paper no. 17633, issued December 2011.

*Study by Center for Education Policy and Analysis – Stanford University, “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” by Sean F. Reardon, 2011.