I have a very simple proposition: The more we teach, the more students learn—but some students get taught more than others.

There’s plenty of evidence to back me up, so I’ll just go with the most recent study I’ve seen that make this point. Bill Schmidt and his research team found that all around the world, schools are increasing the achievement gap by providing low-income students less opportunity to learn mathematics. Using PISA data, they “found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality.” Across the 62 countries in the study, unequal math content accounted for 32% of the achievement gap, on average. In the US, it accounted for 37%.

shutter stock photo little girl
Student who deserves an equal opportunity to learn courtesy of Shutterstock.

This isn’t a simple story of good and bad schools. Most of the variation in opportunity to learn math was within schools, not between them. As Schmidt’s previous research has found, the inequity is often hidden because schools will offer a range of math courses with very similar names—but very different content.

Sadly, other research indicates that systematic inequities in opportunity to learn have a snowballing effect. As Dan Willingham explains, schooling increases IQ by increasing your store of knowledge:

[Research shows that] schooling makes you smarter, but is there evidence that the stuff you remember from school is what’s making you smarter? Maybe going to school exercises your brain, so to speak, so you get smarter, but the specifics of that exercise don’t matter. We have some tentative (but probably not conclusive) research suggesting that the specifics do matter…. Two factors contribute to IQ: the breadth and depth of what you have in memory, and the speed with which you can process what you know…. Researchers have shown that although years of education is associated with IQ, it’s not associated with processing speed. That finding suggests that education increases IQ by increasing the breadth and depth of what you know, which runs counter to the idea that school is like mental exercise, and that the content of the exercise doesn’t matter.

Given such evidence, and common sense, why do low-income students tend to get lesser academics?

Let’s dispense with notions of teachers who are lazy or don’t believe low-income students can learn. Other than a tiny fraction of the profession (recall that all professions have their bad apples), I see no evidence of either. Those who buy into such ideas are being intellectually lazy themselves.

Clearly, much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students, on average, arriving at kindergarten with lower levels of knowledge and skill, and sliding backwards each summer. But that doesn’t account for why schools are making the problem worse.

My guess is that lesser academic content is, in part, an unintended consequence of the focus on student engagement.

It’s true that some aspect of the educational enterprise has to be engaging. When I found a class boring, I knew that I had a reward coming: I was very fortunate in knowing that I would be able to go to college—if I kept my grades up. That was enough for me to stay engaged. I suspect the same is true of many students in middle- and higher-income families.

But relatively few students so fortunate. When students don’t see a connection between challenging academics, high grades, and their futures, what can teachers do? Revising the curriculum to be more engaging (i.e., based on students’ current interests), which in my experience almost always results in easier texts and assignments, seems like the right choice—at least students will learn something. But is there another way to make education engaging? Is there a way to change the class environment without changing the curriculum? Research in Chicago schools indicates there is. It boils down to two essential ingredients: very rigorous content and high social support.

Summarizing this research, Charles Payne characterized it as “Authoritative-Supportive Teaching” that consisted of a:

  • High level of intellectual/academic demand
  • High level of social demand
  • Holistic concern for children and their future; sense of a larger mission
  • Strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy

Rigorous content tells students we believe in them. Social support shows that we mean it.

Policymakers take note: This type of teaching—gap-closing teaching—is exhausting when the educational system is not set up to support it. Across the country, schools with the neediest students often have the fewest resources. To equalize opportunity to learn, policymakers will have to create the conditions for rigor, and teachers will have to embrace it.

7 comments on “Is Your School Increasing the Achievement Gap?”

  1. 1
    MacKenzie Krebs on March 25, 2017

    I personally think that looking at the number of students entering kindergarten with basic readiness skills such as counting to 10, identifying letters, and colors is the basis for understanding how to approach closing the achievement gap. A recent study showed that 30% of students are kindergarten ready with parents of a graduate/professional degree (Child Trends, 2015). If you think about the rest of the class, that 70%, that it is an alarming number for students that are below where they should be. I believe as you mentioned that providing a rigorous curriculum is helpful in closing the achievement gap. Ample evident shows that students can achieve at high levels if they are taught at high levels. I would argue that many teachers struggle to keep up this rigor for an entire year as it is exhausting working with struggling students to that extent. While this is known to be a step in helping students close the achievement gap my most important concern is that schools with the neediest students have the fewest resources (Child Trends, 2015). If you look at many city schools they need the most in terms of newer books, additional support staff, yet they have the least. How are these schools going to find the resources and dedicated teachers needed to actually make growth in closing the achievement gap?

    Child Trends Databank. (2015). Early School Readiness. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=early-school-readiness

    1. 2
      Mary Spiker on July 18, 2018

      The achievement gap is not just about what is happening in our schools, it begins in the home. The early school years are of extreme importance and necessitate a strong force for prevention and early intervention (Frederico and Whiteside, 2016). The formation of school, family, and community partnerships is a strategy promoted to improve school outcomes (Frederico and Whiteside, 2016). This partnership must be built on trust, respect, and a common vision. Striving to build schools, homes, and communities where the students have their basic needs met and are provided with the essentials they need to learn regardless of their economic level or background. The goal is to make the school the “hub” for the community.
      Although Pre-K funding has increased by 48 million (6.8%) since 2015-16 (Education Commission of the States, 2017) there are six states not providing any funding for pre-K. In addition, only 13 states plus D.C. (Education Commission of the States, 2017) require full-day kindergarten to be offered. I wonder what would happen if we put our full weight behind students by providing them with the time, materials, and complex learning opportunities they need to meet with success in their future beyond the school building.

      Diffey, L., Parker, E., and Atchison, B. (2017, January). State Pre-K funding 2016-17 Fiscal Year: Trends and opportunities. Retrieved from

      Frederico, M., & Whiteside, M. (n.d). Building School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Developing a Theoretical Framework. Australian Social Work, 69(1), 51-66.

  2. 3
    George Leiva on May 29, 2017

    My concern, however with this article is that the educational gap is,
    Somehow achieved. In fact, it hasn’t in any way. The World is not poverty free yet. According to Unesco, “In purely economic terms, income poverty is when a family’s income fails to meet a federally established threshold that differs across countries. Typically it is measured on families and not the individual, and is adjusted for the number of persons in a family.”

    Last I remember, almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. These numbers account for 80% percent of the world. As we all know, Poverty is a huge factor affecting students all over the world. In fact, many States have a high percentage of low-income families. Tell me how this doesn’t affect student achievement? For instance, in South Africa students passing grade has been lowered to 20%. It is shocking. How can this be a measurement of student achievement? Therefore, closing the gap?

    In my opinion, it’s the gap closing? Certainly not! I believe a lot of the promise of public education offer all over the world, but there is a lot of work to be done to make any impact in global education gap.



  3. 4
    Leticia Miranda-Garcia on January 25, 2018

    After reading this article it is evident that the goal of all educators is student achievement. Closing the achievement gap will always by primary regardless of demographics. My concern is the idea that students abilities will be measured by assessments. While it is understood that data is important, consideration on students that, do not test well, will affect demographics. In regards to poverty, this societal aspect will not disappear. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016, the poverty level was 12.6%. The same year the Arizona Department of Education indicated that the Reading proficiency was 23% compared to the National proficiency of 27%. The achievement gap will continue to be an issue in this country regardless of poverty levels.

    Arizona Department of Education. (n.d.) Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://cms.azed.gov/home/GetDocumentFile?id=592f13843217e10e8022c6e5

    United States Census Bureau. (n.d). Education. Retrieved February 17, 2016, from http://www.census.gov/topics/education.html

  4. 5
    Alisha Miles on May 27, 2018

    I do believe that some students are taught more than others. Those students are usually minority students because of their lack of access to quality education. There is a significant number of minority students who live in poverty. Poverty is known to be linked to reduced academic achievement. Students who live in poverty come to school every day without the proper tools for success. As a result, they are usually behind their classmates socially and cognitively. The physical and social-emotional factors of living in poverty have a damaging effect on students’ intellectual performance.
    One answer is better funding of early childhood opportunities for at-risk students. “Another answer is meeting some of the children’s basic needs, like food and healthcare support at school. One of the ways experienced teachers can make a difference in the lives of students living in poverty is by being prepared to lead” (2017).
    Some schools that I have worked for have contributed to the achievement gap seen in minority students. I have worked for a school that did not have the needed resources for students to be successful in the world today. Technology is a vast educational advancement, and there were not enough computers for students to regularly use. The school did not have books, and often there was not a curriculum for teachers to follow. All these things help contribute to the achievement gap in our students. I believe that all schools should have access to the resources needed for them to be successful.

    How Does Poverty Affect Education? | LSU Online. (2017, April 10). Retrieved from https://lsuonline.lsu.edu/articles/education/how-does-poverty-affect-education.aspx

  5. 6
    Mary Spiker on July 22, 2018

    Much of the student population in the United States comes from homes diverse in culture and linguistics (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). According to the United States Census Bureau (as cited by Hall, Quinn, and Gollinick, 2014), “Children under eighteen are more likely to be in poverty than any other age-group” (p. 46). Student’s achievement has been shown to be significantly influenced by many variables, one of which is poverty (Aceves and Orosco, 2014).

    Eric Jensen (as cited by Shank, 2010), lists several factors that affect students of poverty: emotional and social challenges, acute and chronic stressors, cognitive lags, and health and safety issues (p. 2). Weakened by poverty’s adverse characteristics, emotional and social challenges often lead to psychological dysfunction. Students exposed to stress over time often lack coping skills and experience behavioral and academic struggles in the school setting (Shank, 2010). Shank (2010, defined cognitive lags as achievement inconsistencies located between various socioeconomic groups (Shank, 2010). Health and safety factors include malnutrition, environmental dangers, and inadequate health care.

    Unfortunately, according to Jensen, (as cited by Shank, 2010), brains are constructed to reflect the environment they are in, not beyond them. So, changing the environment is crucial to students of poverty success in academics as well as life. Systems do not change all by themselves. Rather, the actions of individuals on new understandings intersect to cause breakthroughs which becomes a potential shift in paradigm (Fullan, 1993).

    Maybe the question in need of addressing is how to effectively change the experiences of students outside the classroom to allow them to accelerate their learning and deepen their understanding once they enter the school system.


    Aceves, T. C., & Orosco, M. J. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching (Document No. IC-2). Retrieved from University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform Center website: http://ceedar.education.ufl.edu/tools/innovation-configurations/

    Fullan, M. (1993). Why teachers must become change agents. Educational Leadership. Association for Curriculum and Development, 50(6), 12-17. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar93/vol50/num06/Why-Teachers-Must-Become-Change-Agents.aspx

    Hall, G., Quinn, L., & Gollinick, D. (2014). Introduction to teaching: Making a difference in student learning. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. p.38.

    Jensen, E. (2013). How poverty affects classroom engagement. Educational Leadership. 70(8). 24-30. Retrieved from https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=0248a482-584f-49dc-8788-51ffb59b91d5%40sessionmgr101

    Pfeiffer, S. I. (2002). Identifying gifted and talented students: Recurring issues and promising solutions. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19(1), 31-50. doi:10.1300/J008v19n01_03

    Shank, J. (2010). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to a kids’ brain, and what school s can do about it. Education Review (10945296), 1, p. 2.

    United States Department of Education. (2018). Jacob. K. Javits gifted and talented students’ education program. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/programs/javits/index.html

  6. 7
    Esther Wilkinson on January 24, 2019

    This article led me to reflect carefully on the differences in achievement I have seen in my school over the years. Our Caribbean schools do not reflect diversity common in the schools in the United States of America. The level of diversity in each classroom with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, language, culture and socio-economic status is not significant (Laureate Education, Inc.2015). However, as the students advance from kindergarten through the classes in the elementary school, we notice the significant gaps in achievement levels.
    I support the view that much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students on average who enter school with lower levels of knowledge and skill and who slide backward each summer, forcing teachers to start over with them. Also, many of these miss the opportunities to experience enrichment in the arts, physical activities, and academic enrichment that support their learning like children from middle and higher-income homes. They do not experience the variety of activities which develop their self-confidence along with the small group tutoring that helps address their academic needs (Abramson, 2018)
    Efforts are made in the school to standardize teaching across grade levels to meet the pace and learning profile of students with remedial efforts designed to address student weaknesses evident. In many cases, student abilities and attitudes are the major factors influencing student scores, especially in Mathematics. However, as students approach the age of 10 -11 when they face a national examination designed to allocate them to secondary school, the intensity of effort is directed towards these students. Teachers’ efforts in the classroom are supplemented by high levels of tutoring outside of the classroom. Parents invest in learning materials, spend more time with their children and provide different sets of lessons for the students. Some of them attend form level meetings for the first time in years. The result of this focused effort is that students with moderate, average and above average ability usually perform significantly better in this examination than throughout the previous years in school.
    I believe that this improvement in scores is the result of the Authoritative – Supportive teaching identified in this post with its high level of intellectual demand, social demand, holistic concern for children and their future with a sense of mission, and a strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy that make a difference (Core Knowledge Foundation, 2015). This teaching reflects our beliefs that students can succeed when effective teaching is supported socially by families with a regard for the future well-being of the students.
    Effective teacher leadership within the classroom provides the “gap-closing teaching” (Core Knowledge Foundation, 2015) which makes a difference in student achievement and in the school. It has been stated that who the teacher is and what the teacher does within the classroom have a greater influence on students’ accomplishments than any other school factor (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007). I, therefore, concur with the proposition that the more we teach, the more students learn.
    Abramson, A. (2018). What is the Achievement Gap and What Can Educators Do About It? Retrieved from Rasmussen College: https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/education/blog/what-is-the-achievement-gap/
    Ackerman, R., & Mackenzie, S. (Eds.). (2007). Uncovering teacher leadership: Essays and voices from the field. (Laureate Custom Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Core Knowledge Foundation. (2015). Is Your School Increasing the Achievement Gap? Retrieved from Core Knowledge: https://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/is-your-school-increasing-the-achievement-gap/
    Laureate Education (Producer). (2015). Introduction to multicultural education [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

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