The achievement gap; the concept refers to long-standing disparities in academic performance of African Americans and other minorities when compared with white students. It’s a subject that has not only dominated education journals and legislative hearing rooms, but also befuddled policy makers.
How do you eliminate the achievement gap? Over the past fifty years, the usual approach has been to “fill” opportunity gaps. Achievement gaps, say advocates, emerge because students are deprived of the opportunities that other students have. These shortcomings work to disadvantage students in the development of knowledge and behavioral, academic, and social skills. Gaps can include such things as lack of healthcare, poor nutrition, poorly educated parents, being a member of a racial minority, or lack of computer or internet access. The way to eliminate achievement gaps is to create opportunities for children where they are currently lacking. Such opportunities may include high-quality teachers, pre-school programs, afterschool programs, nutritional programs, parent intervention programs, student enrichment programs and so forth.
Those who advocate against the achievement gap largely believe the gap to be a result of external factors, that is factors that are outside the control of students or parents. To address the gap, society simply needs to marshal the money, staff, and resources to address the problem. In an article posted to the education website The 74, Keri Wehrly argued that the secret to closing the achievement gap is aligning curriculum, teacher and student expectations, and whole child support. The research community seems to be saying “we just don’t have the right combination of staffing and resources yet.” For fifty years states, foundations, non-profit organizations, and schools have been trying to close the achievement gap. Consistently disappointing results haven’t dimmed the desire to keep trying.
But what if the researchers focused primarily on reversing the achievement gap through expanding opportunity are wrong? That’s the very real and significant question that William Jeynes asks in a thought-provoking article on the website Public Discourse. Jeynes, an education professor at Cal- State University basically says researchers are not looking in the right places. Jeynes acknowledges that addressing the opportunity gap must be part of the solution, but he also believes the causes of the opportunity gap are more complex and also involve personal decisions made by parents and children; decisions such as where parents decide to send their children to school, how much emphasis their household will place on faith, or how hard children will work to please God or give their life purpose.
What’s the best way for resolving the achievement gap? According to Jeynes, the variables that most reliably reduce the achievement gap are family and faith. He writes:
The family elements that were most strongly associated with a reduction in the achievement gap were coming from a two biological parent family and high levels of parental involvement. These are interrelated; when two parents are present, this maximizes the frequency and quality of parental involvement. To be sure, there are dedicated single parents. However, the reality is that when a parent must take on the roles and function of two, it is simply more difficult than when two parents are present. Unless we improve family stability, and thus parental involvement, the achievement gap is likely to remain for decades to come.
Jeynes states that a person’s faith also has a big outcome on his or her academic performance. He says that regularly attending worship services or defining oneself as religious yield significant reductions in the achievement gap. Jaynes credits the purpose and discipline that religion can add to a person’s life as factors. Moreover, Jeynes found from his meta-analysis that:
If an African American or Latino student was a person of faith and came from a two-biological parent family, the achievement gap totally disappeared, even when adjusting for socio-economic status. Various other studies have confirmed that people of faith do better in school by a pretty sizeable margin. One recent example is a study by Illana Horowitz of Stanford University who asserted that there is as she called it, an “abider-avoider achievement gap.”
So, what does this all mean? First, we need to realize that focusing on the opportunity gap has been the primary means that North Carolina and this nation have used to address the achievement gap. Despite the creation of countless programs on the state and national level and spending billions of dollars, this approach has done little to solve the problem.
Our history is replete with programs championed by progressives and liberals who took on the goal of trying to remedy the achievement gap. We’ve developed separate funding formulas to help disadvantaged populations in school districts and created busing programs in hopes of reversing the achievement gap. At the Federal level, the names of the programs are familiar; Title I funds for disadvantaged children, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Child Succeeds Act, to name a few. They may have been well-intentioned, but they haven’t worked. Yet we keep trying.
Isn’t it time to acknowledge the vital and important role family and faith play in this discussion? Such findings aren’t new. The link between religious faith and academic achievement has been well documented in the literature (for starters, see here and here) In 1966, the Coleman Report found that physical facilities or funding were not the most important factors in a child’s educational success. Instead, he found the main factor influencing a child’s educational success was family background. The physical amenities of a school weren’t the most important factor in a child’s educational success, and neither was funding, . Instead, it was a student’s family background. No one had said this before and backed it up with data. Coleman was the first to document what came to be known as the achievement gap—African American children were several grade levels behind their white counterparts in school. Still other research points to the prominence of the family in determining academic achievement (see here, here and here). Brad Wilcox and others at the Institute for Family Studies have done great work pointing out the importance of strong families and what happens when families fail.
Disparities in achievement exist. The crucial question is, “How do we effectively resolve them?” Focusing exclusively on opportunity hasn’t worked. This isn’t to deny inequalities and racism and the evil that exists in the human heart. But we know academic achievement is determined by a variety of complex factors. For too long we have looked past the importance of family and faith. Research and common sense points to the vital role both play in enhancing student achievement. Isn’t it time our policies reflect and encourage what we know to be true?