Multicultural education is an educational approach that encourages diversity and equality: the instruction of students from different backgrounds, the study of ethnic and other cultural groups, the development of critical thinking skills, and a focus on human relations. The achievement gap in education refers to systematic variances in the ability to learn between students from majority populations and students from minority populations. Today, efforts are being made to raise student achievement across the board and close the achievement gap.
Keywords Accountability; Achievement Gap; Brown v. Board of Education; Cultural Incompetence; Culture; Curriculum; Diversity; Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); Empowerment Theory; Equality; General Education; Marginalize; Multicultural Education; National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE); No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Self-Efficacy; Special Education; Teacher Preparation Programs; Underrepresented
Multicultural Education: The Achievement Gap
Multicultural education is an educational approach that integrates four factors into a curriculum to encourage diversity and equality: the instruction of students from different backgrounds, the study of ethnic and cultural groups, the development of critical thinking skills, and a focus on human relations (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004). Educators have continually been encouraged to incorporate multicultural education into their curriculums; however, the manner in which they have responded to the racial, cultural, and linguistic shifts in student demographics has not been sufficient. As a result, a lack of cultural competence has left some students less prepared to achieve than others (Brown, 2007).
The achievement gap in education refers to systematic variances in learning ability between students from majority populations and students from minority populations (i.e. the disparity between students from high income families and students from low income families). The most significant effort made by the federal government to improve the nation's schools and student learning is the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Congress initially passed the first act in 1965 in conjunction with President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives. Since then, every four or five years the Act has been reauthorized, each time expanding its scope (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004).
The ESEA was largely designed to address the achievement gap in multicultural education. However, improvement in the academic performances of poor and minority students has been slow over the last forty years. With President George W. Bush's lead, the 2002 reauthorization of the ESEA denoted a significant departure grounded in the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004). NCLB is a federal plan instituted in 2001 with the intention of making schools more responsive to the needs of students. As such, it calls for schools to make annual gains in test scores. Its goal is to raise students' achievement levels to meet state-defined standards by the year 2014. It places an emphasis on educational quality and accountability, defining quality teaching as "effective knowledge and teaching of content area as well as classroom management skills." (Morrier, Irving, Dandy, Dmitriyev, & Ukeje, 2007, p. 32; Obiakor, 2007).
Raising student achievement across the board and eliminating the achievement gap between students from different backgrounds are key purposes of the NCLB. Almost 2,100 pages of the NCLB directive provide initiatives and directives for states and school districts. Though NCLB emphasizes accountability, a focus on cultural understanding is not included in the mandate (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004). Some students are still left behind, thereby furthering an achievement gap for multicultural education learners, even at the beginning of their education.
Describing the Gap
The U.S. Census shows appreciable differences between the academic achievements of racial groups. According to census data prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2005, among African Americans aged twenty-five and over, 81.5 percent had graduated from high school, and 12.5 percent had a bachelor’s degree. Among Hispanics aged twenty-five and over, only 58.5 percent had graduated from high school, and 8.5 percent had a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, among whites aged twenty-five and older in 2005, 90.1 percent had graduated from high school, and 19.7 percent had a bachelor’s degree. Asian Americans had a comparable high school completion rate to whites, at 87.7 percent, but outpaced all other groups in attainment of undergraduate degrees, at 31.8 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).
In almost every academic subject, African American and Hispanic children continue to perform at lower levels in comparison to their white counterparts. On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), 46 percent of white students versus 17 percent of African American and 22 percent of Hispanic students in eighth grade scored at or above proficient in reading. Similar statistics were noted for math scores: Forty-five percent of white students, 14 percent of African American students, and 21 percent of Hispanic students in eighth grade were considered proficient or better.
Though these disparities are real and well-known, they do not receive much attention from mandates like No Child Left Behind. Processes within these mandates do not consider cultural and linguistic differences in students when it comes to assessment, placement, categorization, or instruction (Obiakor, 2007).
The achievement gap in multicultural education also influences the number of children placed in special education programs (Obiakor, 2007). The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that there is some disproportion in public school enrollment and special education placements for minority groups. For example, African Americans represent 20 percent of special education placements, even though they represent approximately 17 percent of general public school enrollments. On the other hand, white students represent 43 percent of special education placements, while they make up 67 percent of general public school enrollments (cited in Obiakor, 2007).
Because many factors can influence achievement gaps in multicultural education, they must be considered prior to completing any formal assessments for a child. Educators must acknowledge students' diverse cultural experiences and respond appropriately.
Language is one factor that influences achievement gaps, particularly for Hispanic American students. Language is an important part of classroom instruction and plays an integral role in this setting. Hispanic students tend to view language as a unique part of their culture since they may switch between their native language, English, and a combination of both (Delgado & Rogers-Adkinson, 1999). Smitherman (2001) and Williams (1975) report that in urban, suburban, and rural schools, some of the languages students bring with them conflict with Standard English, making it difficult for these students to communicate with others. In addition, some African American children use Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English, a nonstandard form of English, to communicate in the classroom. Obiakor (2007) suggests that to appropriately evaluate the type of educational assistance a child needs, general and special educators must have a good understanding of students' linguistic skills and cultural environments.
Teachers also play a significant role in the achievement gap between minority and majority students. As a result of cultural biases, some teachers judge the behavior of minority students more deviant than that of majority students (Grossman, 2002; Sbarra & Pianta, 2001). Though parents rely on teachers to identify disabilities and areas of challenge for students, some teachers selectively exclude children who they feel are "different," and place them in special education classes (Skrtic, 2003; Utley & Obiakor, 2001). This behavior increases the achievement gap in multicultural learners.
General and special education teachers should seek appropriate training to ensure that they are culturally competent and can meet the needs of all their students. They should be creative with the design of their classrooms and curriculums, so that they can create a welcoming atmosphere for students, parents, and staff. Teachers should also learn about teaching methods that will support diverse groups of students to ensure that each child has a positive learning experience (Obiakor, 2007). These skills are necessary to avoid inappropriately labeling a student through a lack of cultural understanding, as labeling also plays a role in the level of achievement a student reaches.
Labeling can cause students to make incorrect assumptions about their own abilities (Obiakor, 1999). In many cases, students internalize the labels they are given and may act out according to these labels. Though some scholars argue that labels are needed to convey information to new teachers and other educators, they often end up influencing the multicultural achievement gap, causing students to continue to lag behind (Obiakor, 2007; Ysseldyke, Algozzine & Thurlow, 2000). Inappropriately labeling students can skew students' achievement levels and cause educators and students themselves to undervalue their abilities. For example, a teacher may believe that a student labeled mentally disabled cannot perform certain tasks. If this is the case, the labeled child may not be pushed to increase his or her abilities and thus be limited to a life of lowered expectations and minimal performance levels (Obiakor, 2007).
Lastly, many students from minority groups come to school with a history of oppression, marginalization, and racism that they have dealt with all their lives. These experiences may have occurred in general society, as well as in American education systems (Mitcham-Smith, 2007). Negative psychosocial stresses can be associated with these experiences (Carr, 2003; Zimmerman, 1995), causing low self-esteem and other mental health problems (Carr, 2003; Duran & Duran, 1995; Hanna et al., 2000; Potts, 2003). These factors influence student achievement and, in turn, impact the achievement gap for multicultural learners.
Teachers and other educators tend to be of the majority race, with ethnocentric and Americanized experiences and training. Unfortunately, when these educators have no multicultural education training, they are more prone to misunderstand cultural characteristics of students. Educators must understand these factors so that they may appropriately assess students' educational levels and achievements (Mitcham-Smith, 2007).
Closing the Achievement Gap by Enhancing School Guidance Programs
Many scholars have suggested a number of ways in which the multicultural education achievement gap may be closed.
Counselors are among the educators that tend to lack cultural competence and be ill-prepared to serve multicultural learners. For this reason, they have received a number of accountability mandates (Dahir, 2004; Dahir & Stone, 2003; Myrick, 2003; Paisley & McMahon, 2001). Legislators recognize that educators need to possess cultural competence not only for academic purposes, but also for serving students' nonacademic needs (Brown, 2007).
The achievement gap is defined as the disparity that exists between the test scores of White American students and African American and Hispanic or minority students. Test results indicate that White students score higher than minority students (except Asians) on measures of achievement. This gap is measured by test scores on a variety of instruments measuring intelligence, achievement, and aptitude. These include the National Assessment of Educational Progress, SAT, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and other instruments administered in the public schools of the United States.
The achievement gap is a major concern to policy makers and educators alike, and much research has been done to discover the cause of this test score difference. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the achievement gap between Whites and African Americans is between 0.80 and 1.14 standard deviations. Between Whites and Hispanics, it is between 0.40 and 1.00. According to NAEP data, this gap exists both in reading and in math. The educational, social, and economic implications for minority students are huge. The dropout rate for minority teens is higher than for White teens, the high school graduation rate lower, and as a result, opportunities in the job market are substantially limited. Education is purported to be the great equalizer, but this gap persists and points to a significant problem in the educational system in the United States. This entry looks at the question: What is the cause of this achievement gap, and can the gap be closed?
In 1954, the Supreme Court decision reached in Brown v. Board of Education stated that the educational system in the United States was “separate and unequal.” African American and other minority children attended class in dilapidated buildings, with limited funding and resources. These conditions and their inherent discriminatory practices contributed to the early gaps in test scores between White and minority students.
In more recent times, test bias has been alleged by theorists who claim that the contents of achievement tests are biased in favor of White students, and thus the tests discriminate against minorities. Others have said minority students are inherently inferior intellectually and the achievement gap is proof. There has been no clear-cut evidence to support this claim, however, though it has been made throughout the last few centuries by various pundits.
In addition to these assertions, the research has investigated many other factors that may contribute to this gap. These include race, socioeconomic status, culture, teacher expectations, instructional practices, parent level of education, parent involvement, cultural capital, and various societal elements, even rap music. Basically, there is no evidence suggesting a cause of the achievement gap in education.
While definitive causes may not be available, landmark research conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley offers insight into what may be the origins of the problem and as a result, likely solutions. These researchers studied children from ten months to three years old in families from three socioeconomic backgrounds: welfare, middle class, and professional (specifically college professors’ families). Their study, which looked at the quantity of conversation in families as counted in words, suggests that for some children, the achievement gap begins before they enter the educational system.
They found that the average welfare child heard about 616 words per hour, compared to 1,251 words per hour for the average working-class child, and 2,153 words per hour for children in professional families. In four years of such experience, an average child in a professional family would have heard almost 45 million words, an average child in a working class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words. Thus, by the time the children enter school, their experiences are vastly different, with potential consequences. For example, a student who arrives at school having heard, let’s say, the word marvelous 1,000 times will most likely know that word and its usage, as compared to a child who had only heard it ten times or not at all. Experience with language offers a decided advantage. These findings moved the government to fund and implement a comprehensive preschool system, Head Start, aimed at closing the gap for children born into poverty.
Since researchers can’t come to a conclusion about why the achievement gap exists, they have sought solutions to decrease it. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), this goal was achieved for a period of thirteen years as indicated by data showing that the gap narrowed between 1975 and 1988. From 1990 to 1999, however, the gap remained the same or grew. In fact, according to the Education Trust, by the time African American and Hispanic students reach twelfth grade, their English, math, and science skills are similar to the skills of thirteen-year-old White students.
A Nation At Risk
What factors contributed to the narrowing of the achievement gap in the 1980s? Again there are many explanations espoused by the researchers. Title I supplied much needed government funding to economically depressed schools. Also, in 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report A Nation at Risk served notice on the entire educational system that the Unites States was lagging behind the nations of the world. The commission set forth the following recommendations:
- Graduation requirements should be strengthened in five new basics: English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science.
- Schools and colleges should adopt higher and measurable standards for academic performance.
- The amount of time students spend engaged in learning should be significantly increased.
- The teaching profession should be strengthened through higher standards for preparation and professional growth.
This prompted swift action as professional educational entities such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of English, National Science Teachers Association, and the International Reading Association scrambled to raise the standards of academic achievement in our nation’s schools through the establishment of national standards. These standards were meant to offer strong content-based curriculum practices intended to increase student achievement through content.
The report, which focused on the test scores of the general student population, and its subsequent reaction by the educational community, seems to have had the positive effect of narrowing the achievement gap, according to a 2006 article in the American Journal of Education by Douglas Harris and Carolyn Herrington. The authors also stated that during the 1980s, when content and time standards (what is taught, and the amount of time spent teaching and learning) were improved, the achievement gap narrowed. They added, however, that during the 1990s, the gap remained the same or grew at the onset of the accountability focus in the form of high-stakes tests, school takeovers, vouchers, charter schools, and other government and market based accountability programs.
Another factor said to narrow the achievement gap is teacher quality. Highly qualified teachers can narrow the achievement gap just as incompetent teachers can widen it. Research indicates that high quality teaching can have lasting effects on student achievement. Unfortunately, poor quality teachers are concentrated in low performing schools. According to research, this is no coincidence. Being taught by a poor quality teacher can seriously affect student achievement. Among other findings, Steven Rivkin, Eric Hanushek, and John Kain found that high quality instruction in primary school may offset disadvantages associated with low socioeconomic background.
Quality Reading Instruction
Additional measures have been employed to improve overall student performance and combat the widening achievement gap. In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a meta-analysis detailing the “big five” of the instructional reading process: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The panel determined that systematic phonics instruction leads to significant positive benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and for children with difficulty learning to read. They also found that professional development for teachers is necessary to improve the quality of reading instruction.
No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act, was signed into law on January 8, 2002. The U.S. Department of Education stated that the law helps schools improve by focusing on accountability for results, freedom for states and communities, proven education methods, and choices for parents. One of the primary objectives of the legislation is to close the achievement gap, as stated in Title I, Section 100-Statement of Purpose,
The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by … closing the achievement gap between highand lowperforming children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers. . .
Various programs and projects, such as Reading First; Prevention and Intervention Programs for Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or at Risk; Family Literacy; Drop-Out Prevention; Advanced Placement Programs; and Comprehensive School Reform are funded through NCLB.
With any new government initiative, however, comes debate. NCLB is no exception. Many believe the program has inordinately increased stress on teachers and students through the use of high stakes testing to measure goal compliance. In general, a great deal of spirited conversation surrounds the effectiveness of some of the NCLB’s stipulations. Are the accountability measures improving teacher quality and academic achievement among all student groups? Is the achievement gap narrowing? Only time and data will be the judge.
- Baard, M. (2006). Scholars cite history’s legacy, rap music for achievement gap. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 23, 20.
- Borman, G. D., & Kimball, S. M. (2005). Teacher quality and educational equality: Do teachers with higher standards-based evaluation ratings close student achievement gaps? Elementary School Journal, 106, 3–20.
- Harris, D. N., & Herrington, C. D. (2006). Accountability, standards, and the growing achievement gap: Lessons from the past half-century. American Journal of Education, 112, 209–237.
- Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful difference in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
- Jencks, C., & Phillips, M. (Eds.). (1998). The Black-White test score gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- A nation at risk. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html
- Rivkin, S. G., Hanushek, E. A., & Kain, J. F. (2005). Teachers, schools, and academic achievement. Econometrica, 73, 417–458.
- Stiefwl, L., Schwartz, A. E., & Ellen, I. G. (2006). Disentangling the racial test score gap: Probing the evidence in a large urban school district. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 26, 7–30.
- National Reading Panel: http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org
- No Child Left Behind, U.S. Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml
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