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Can American schools close the achievement gaps?

Currently, the United States is at war and the nation’s future can be at risk. It’s the war on student achievement gaps, one that has waged for decades and proven extremely difficult to fight and complex to understand. Is American education system losing its war on achievement gaps? Can American schools and colleges still win the war on underachievement? Why and how?

The war on achievement gaps is the ubiquitous challenge of discovering and realizing untapped potential for all students. More than half of American students’ academic growth potential has been lost over the past several decades. Although underachievement prevails due to inadequate and inequitable learning environments in both homes and schools, the American education system has strengths and can still win the war on achievement gaps.

Underachievement problem is serious and ubiquitous in American education.

The evidence of unrealized potential is found in every corner of our education system:

  • the gap between IQ gain and achievement gain,
  • the gap between college aspirations and actual attainments,
  • the gap between school funding gain and student achievement gain,
  • the gap between predicted (based on social and educational environment changes) achievement gain and actual achievement gain, and
  • the gap between United States and other nations, particularly lower- socioeconomic status and higher-performing Asian countries.

Approximately half or more of the nation’s academic growth potential based on available talent, resources, and capacity has been either lost or wasted. In other words, American students’ achievement could (and should) have improved at least two times more than it did over the past several decades.

Racial achievement gaps are inequitable and heterogeneous.

Many American students’ underachievement is largely a consequence of untapped potential, that is, inadequate and inequitable educational opportunities and efforts throughout the system. Traditionally, the underachievement problem tended to be most severe at the middle and high school levels and most prevalent among disadvantaged black and Hispanic groups. Now, achievement gap issues extend to preschool, elementary school, and college levels and also make white and Asian-American groups vulnerable. Even the highest performing racial minority group within the United States—Asian-American students—are experiencing the problem of being the “big frog in a small pond” because they manage to maintain only a slight edge over other groups within their own country yet substantially lag behind native Asian students with the same ethnic backgrounds outside the United States. Switching the reference group for interracial comparison from white to Asian students would not only enlarge the size of relative achievement gaps for blacks and Hispanics, but also weaken the relative importance of family socioeconomic status as an explanatory factor of underachievement; their gaps in academic engagement as well as school learning opportunities become more salient.

Neither (school) funding nor testing works for closing the achievement gaps.

The foundation for racial equity was built in the 1960s and ‘70s, when education and social policies worked to narrow the achievement gap by guaranteeing a minimally adequate level of achievement for minorities through compensatory education, minimum competency testing, school desegregation, equalization of school funding, the War on Poverty, and affirmative action. However, the past policies had limitations since the progress was restricted to basic skills among blacks. Standards-based education reform and test-driven accountability movement since the 1980s did not fulfill the promise of upgrading skills for all students. The average effect of (costly) input-driven interventions such as class size reduction and teacher quality improvement was modest, although their effects tend to be relatively larger for disadvantaged, low-achieving and younger students. The average effect of (relatively cheaper) high-stakes testing interventions was modest; the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) policy failed to narrow achievement gaps. A proper mix of input-driven and performance-driven educational interventions (i.e., combination of capacity-building and incentives) may help improve cost-effectiveness (bang for the buck) for both excellence and equity goals. At the end of the day, schools alone cannot close the achievement gaps.

B-P-16 education pledge can be a game changer for American education system.

Winning the war on achievement gaps will require a paradigm shift, one with broad-based visions and long-term policy strategies for education formed in a knowledge-based society over the next 100 years. Based on national trends, the projected time needed for closing the current achievement gap looks dismal. For example, it may take up to 100 years to close the black-white gap or it may not even happen to close the Korea-US gap. However, under the scenario of implementing universal B-P-16 education (from birth-preschool through college) with new policy strategies, the nation may plan to close the black-white achievement gap in 30-plus years and the Korea-US achievement gap in 50-plus years. A vision of “B-P-16 education pledge” is proposed as the organizing principle of American public education system. In spite of the achievement gaps, American education has unique strengths so that education reform needs a balancing act, fixing the weaknesses of schools without ignoring and undermining existing strengths such as diversity, creativity and innovation (conversely weakness of Asian education model).

There are growing concerns that the United States has veered away from its ideal as the land of opportunity, where public education is the engine of economic growth and social mobility. However, it is possible to reverse the path and defeat statistical projection of the trend by ensuring high-quality universal education for all children from birth through college. Through these historic policy changes, the American education system can close the achievement gaps and will become a global model of strength as opposed to a model of deficit.

Featured image credit: ‘Sea of blue’ by Ben Stephenson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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