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MSEd Curriculum Insight: Understanding Education's Achievement Gap

Poverty, parent experiences, and racism could all be contributing factors to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students.

If your career is in education, you are likely familiar with the term “achievement gap.” Defined by the National Education Association as the “differences between the test scores of minority and/or low-income students and the test scores of their white and Asian peers,”1 the achievement gap has been a pressing issue in the U.S. education system for decades. But if educators are to successfully narrow the achievement gap in our schools, they must first understand what causes it.

That’s why students explore the achievement gap—and the reasons for it—as part of their coursework in the MS in Education (MSEd) degree program at Walden University. In the online course Teaching and Learning for School Leaders, MSEd students complete the required reading “Confronting the Achievement Gap,” in which author David Gardner, a longtime Seattle educator, shares his insights on the topic. Below is an excerpt from the article. Read along with master’s in education students to expand your understanding of the achievement gap in America:2


The reasons for the achievement gap are as varied as the students who pass through my classes every year. First, many come from a background of poverty. One of the detrimental effects of growing up in poverty is receiving inadequate nourishment at a time when bodies and brains are rapidly developing. Proper human development requires a steady and healthy diet. Poor children rarely get such a diet. Add to that the fact that poor mothers-to-be are rarely well nourished themselves and don’t often receive adequate prenatal care, and you have a recipe for lower achievement among the children.

Poverty also means that there are fewer resources in the home for the child to draw on. Parents (or other caretakers) often work two or more jobs, or they work a night shift, either of which takes away time they might spend with their children. In such circumstances, parents can’t be as involved with their children’s education as they need to be or would like to be.

Poverty can also make it difficult to develop a child’s self-esteem. Poor children have fewer opportunities for enriching experiences. Poor people don’t take trips to Europe or Africa; indeed, some rarely leave their neighborhoods. They may have trouble even taking trips to the zoo or art museum or library.

This is not to say that poor children have no enriching experiences, for they clearly do. However, their experiences may not be the kind valued by the larger community. When the greater society does not value a child’s culture, what is his or her likely response? Anger. Resentment. Loss of trust. Seeing school as an obstacle rather than a way out. These factors drive down motivation, drive down confidence. Many poor children are stuck in this cycle.

Still another factor that can adversely affect a child’s learning is the parents’ own experiences with school and teachers. For many poor parents, these experiences were negative. These parents will thus be more reluctant to come to school, to participate in school events, to contact teachers, or to place any confidence in the school and the education system. Add to the mix the large and increasing number of people who are new to the country—who do not speak English, are unfamiliar with the culture, and in many cases are themselves minimally educated— and the problems are magnified.

Still another reason for the achievement gap has to do with what in academic circles is called “locus of control.” People with an internal locus of control see themselves as primarily responsible for their successes and failures. People with an external locus of control tend to attribute their successes and failures to outside factors: luck, fate, the boss likes me, the teacher doesn’t like me, etc.


Research shows that many people of color have an external locus of control. And there are some good reasons for that. People of color generally experience success (promotions, raises, upward mobility) at lower and slower rates than do whites. They may work as hard or harder and be just as competent, but their efforts are not routinely rewarded.

Does this affect their children? It seems entirely possible. After all, they see their parents struggling, year after year, and they hear their parents talking about the difficulty or impossibility of getting ahead. Then they come to school, work as hard as other students, and see that they, too, fail to achieve at the same rate as their white and Asian peers. They deduce, not unreasonably, that external factors, things beyond their control, must be responsible. This conclusion leads them to reduce their effort and resign themselves to not doing well.

Finally, the long-term effects of racism on the achievement gap should not be underestimated. Schooling for whites in this country extends back for several centuries. Though not equally distributed even among whites, free public education has nonetheless an expectation that education leads to success—at least for those in the majority.

For people of color, no such centuries-long positive history exists. From the slave codes that forbade educating those who were enslaved, to the Jim Crow laws that followed, to the institutional racism that has only been weakened, not eliminated, all have had a devastatingly negative impact on the education of children of color, an impact that continues to this day.

Want to Learn More? Earn an Online MSEd Degree.

If you enjoy reading about topics like this—and want to improve your effectiveness as an educator—then it might be a good time to return to college to earn an MS in Education (MSEd) degree online at Walden University.

Through this online graduate program for teachers, you can learn new teaching strategies and gain the educational expertise needed to grow your impact and career. The MSEd degree program offers 14 specializations in all areas of K–12 education, including an Educational Leadership and Administration (Principal Licensure Preparation) program for educators who want to learn how to become a school principal.

By earning a master’s in education, you can become a better educator and make an even greater difference in your students’ lives.

Walden University is an accredited institution that offers an MS in Education (MSEd) degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible online learning format that fits your busy life.

2Source: “Confronting the Achievement Gap,” David Gardner, Phi Delta Kappan (2007). Walden Blackboard:

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,