Increasingly, the widening gap between rich and poor is in the news. Despite the complexity of the problem, and the fact that inequality has steadily worsened over time, expectations for solving the problem unfairly rest on teachers. Teachers are expected to help African-American and Latino students achieve at similar levels as white and Asian-American ones so that we can compete in the global economy and maintain our standard of living. The repeated refrain to teachers is “close the achievement gap”.
Now social scientists are finding gaps in academic achievement are tied much more significantly to differences in family income.
Researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.
Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.
In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.
The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.
Nevermind that the problem is complex and it’s completely unrealistic to expect teachers to close the achievement gap on their own. If you’re a teacher expect the “close the achievement gap” mantra to be updated. In the updated version teachers will be expected to help students from poor, mostly single parent homes (or series of apartments or homeless shelters) achieve at similar levels as middle-income and well-to-do students.