A Brief History of the Achievement Gap

Just recently, I came to a pretty simple realization: sometimes we become so engrossed in a problem that we forget to step back and take a look at the issue more broadly, from a historical standpoint.  This mini history lesson will do just that, but of course, a brief essay can’t begin to scratch the surface of the enormous achievement gap, so I hope you’re inspired to take this a step further and do some research on your own to truly understand and engage with this topic.

The road to African American education has been a long and bumpy one filled with many obstacles.  Even before the Civil War, African American slaves possessed a burning passion for education, convinced that an educated Black populace would end slavery.  But many hindrances stood in the way of African American education, including severe racial prejudice, discriminatory legislation, and poverty.  Even so, Black people’s eagerness to learn triumphed, and they eventually built schools, curriculums, and a foundation for educational success.  They resourcefully educated themselves in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles and played a vital role in the development of the public school system that educated both Black and White students.

African American students in post-Civil War Southern schools faced many barriers to education, such as poverty, White hostility, vernacular confusion, and cultural differences between Southern students and their Northern teachers.  The conditions in which the students were forced to learn—overcrowded schoolhouses, wide age ranges and abilities, and high student to teacher ratios, among others—impeded academic progress, and the financial necessity of sharecropping made schooling impossible for many Black freedpeople.  Although they lacked the finances, resources, and course materials to learn effectively, many students made every effort to attend school, and Black and White Northern and Southern teachers did their best to educate their destitute pupils.

According to Heather Andrea Williams in Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, as Blacks became more educated, “both elite and poor Whites…perceived a threat” as they realized they could no longer “rely on mere Whiteness to elevate them above better-educated Black people.” Yet, many Blacks had compassion for poor Southern Whites and realized that a common school system that could teach both White and Black students would be beneficial to and necessary in the fledgling United States of America.   Small Black-operated schools accepted poor White students and soon became models for Whites to follow once Southern legislation instituted public school systems (that excluded Blacks).

The Jim Crow era of discriminatory federal, state, and local laws mandated school segregation, thus permitting institutional and structural injustices in the education system.  After the influx of African Americans to Northern cities during the Great Migration in the early to mid 1900s, the urban schools they attended presented similar racial (and thus, socioeconomic) gaps in funding and resources.  In both the North and South, Black youth (if they had the opportunity to attend school) were forced to attend substandard schools that afforded them a low-quality education due to fewer resources and insufficient funding, among other factors.  This thwarted academic achievement and paved the way for the present achievement gaps between the races and classes.

Even after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, segregation still rears its ugly head in the modern American school system.  As we all know, inner city schools, disproportionately composed of low-income minority students, often lack the funding, academic resources, and educational and future opportunities offered to students in predominately White schools.  Remnants of the Jim Crow era have been difficult to discard, and the marriage of socioeconomic status and race has generated significant implications for future academic and financial success for our kids.  The achievement gap between underprivileged students of color and students hailing from wealthy White locations still exists and affects every facet of life. 

So, with an understanding of the history behind the achievement gap, what new solutions might we be able to draw?  If things don’t change, how might the achievement gap manifest itself in the future?  What would the perfect school system look like?        

Written by Cap.the.Gap contributor,  Kristen Bryant                                         

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About Lola O.

is a self-described Reformer for urban education and advocate for students with exceptionalities. Her interest in urban education reform started in context after surviving, what she calls, the “holocaust of the D.C. Public Schools.” She intuitively knew that there where forces working against her; no one had to tell her that the odds of her graduating, going on to college, and escaping poverty were stacked well against her simply because of her zip code of 20010. She made a pact with God that if he delivered her, she would come back and help reverse these odds for students coming after her. Needless to say, God kept his end of the deal and today she is a graduate of Eastern University with degrees in Urban Studies and Political Science and plans to pursue her Master’s in early childhood administration. In 2009, she was accepted to the Public Allies class of 2009-2010. Public Allies, started under the leadership of Michele Obama, is a national movement grounded in the conviction that everyone leads; that everyone has gifts and assets that they can contribute to making their communities and society a better place. While serving as an Ally, she had the opportunity to serve with A Schools—Pittsburgh’s premier advocacy group for urban education reform. It was while in this role that she was able to deepen her knowledge on issues plaguing urban schools across the country. She returned from her time with Public Allies believing that the racial academic achievement gap is the biggest threat to the economic prosperity of historically disenfranchised communities and resolved to sound the alarm through a self-initiated blog entitled, Cap the Gap. The title was inspired by the 2010 summer BP oil spill during which the nation cried out, calling BP to cap the break in the pipe that was spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, causing economic and environmental damage that will be felt for years to come. In the same way, she believes something even more precious is spilling, and that is the lives of tens of thousands of students of color who graduate every year unable to compete in our economy. Without adequate skills, the lives of these students often spill into crime, drugs, welfare dependency, the prison system, and ultimately the grave. Her hope is to bring together a community of concerned citizens to engage in a solution base dialogue that leads to the close of the achievement gap. When she isn’t writing for her blog, she spends her time serving as a volunteer with Jumpstart, a national organization committed to closing the achievement gap by focusing on early literacy and cognitive development. Her best two hours of the week is spent reading to preschoolers at Leap%2

Posted on June 20, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great read.

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