Three Key Factors Perpetuating the Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

Children enter school with the set of experiences their families have been able to provide, but there is a tremendous variation in the types and quality of those experiences. Some children start kindergarten with several years of formal schooling on their resume; others with none at all. Some children have an entire team of support at home waiting for them to help with homework after school; others might be one of many in an aftercare program. Some students have weeks or months of tutoring before taking a test; others may have rarely filled in a bubble with a number 2 pencil.

Teachers and administrators work tirelessly to increase the learning of all students. Simultaneously, they take on the oftentimes impossible task of working to mitigate the disparities between students’ unique situations. Despite this Herculean effort of many educators, it is impossible to create a completely level playing field. And schools only have children for a finite proportion of time each week. They must, in many circumstances, rely on outside efforts to support what happens within the classroom walls. However, many of the common practices that assume a certain level of external support, exposure and resources unintentionally counteract the work toward providing equity and raising achievement for all students.

Our current models of early learning, family engagement and testing in some ways work against our efforts to enable an equal level of sustained growth for the students who need our support the most. Elements of these practices often further perpetuate, and even exacerbate, the socioeconomic achievement gap that separates so many children at the start of school. Small shifts in practice and a recognition of these unintended consequences can have a big effect in mitigating these issues.

Early Learning

There are specific standards in a kindergarten curriculum, and each student’s readiness to embark on that curriculum in large part determines success over the course of the year.

However, the quality and quantity of early learning experiences varies greatly from student to student, often depending upon a family’s available resources. There is also great variance in student exposure to enriching experiences beyond a classroom in these early years, such as visits to museums, zoos, and other cultural institutions with their families in their toddler years.

This results in the existence of an achievement gap from the first day of kindergarten. Children without high-quality early learning experiences enter Kindergarten lacking foundational academic and social-emotional skills that limit their ability to participate in the standard curriculum. Many even struggle with basic language skills. As the first weeks of school come and go, most students finesse the basic skills and move on to more complex learning. Students without quality early learning experiences are left to focus on the basics. In essence, they are behind from the very start of school.

As an interventionist, I have had many opportunities to help fill in gaps in students’ understanding. At one point, I was working with a small group of Kindergarteners, playing a letter game to reinforce letter names and letter sounds. One student, who had not had any early learning experience, was unsure of how to sit with our group, manipulate the game pieces, take turns, or ask and answer questions. While the other students practiced their early literacy skills, I worked one-on-one with this student to begin learning the most basic structures of school.

Recommendations: Access to effective early learning experiences is essential for our students. As some states are finding creative ways to fund preschool for all, we can do more to support our students even before they enter the doors to Kindergarten. To strengthen our youngest learners, we must find ways to provide support, exposure and resources.

  • Schools can become community educators, utilizing their highly-qualified educational professionals to provide professional development to area preschools and parents.
  • Schools can invite young kids from the neighborhood into the schools for school events to build comfort and exposure.
  • School communities can provide games, activities, and puzzles through a library resource bank or by connecting young families with public libraries.

Family Communication and Engagement

Once in school, a great differentiator in student achievement is a family’s engagement in a child’s education and their ability to support learning at home. Research has shown that family engagement in a child’s learning leads to significant social-emotional, behavioral and academic gains across all gender, racial and socioeconomic groups.

Unfortunately, while most parents want very much to participate in their child’s education and do whatever they can to help their child develop and prosper, both the opportunity and confidence to do this is constrained when parents have few overall resources. These families often have more barriers to participate in school activities and events and fewer options for communication. Further, parents who had negative experiences with schools themselves or struggled to complete formal education do not always see schools as welcoming.

This is why schools must work harder to engage all families. I remember one parent in particular from a school I worked at who did not respond to call after call and email after email regarding an ongoing issue with her child at school. After a home visit, we learned that this parent could not access her email or answer her phone at work for fear of getting fired from a job she desperately needed. At home, she was raising three children on her own, and could not have any productive phone conversations during the hours her young children were awake. She simply requested that we send her texts. Shifting communication to texting bridged school and home for this family, and the student began to find greater success in the classroom.

Recommendations: Engaging families requires flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to understand school from a parent’s perspective.

  • Parents and families should be viewed as partners and equal members of their child’s educational support team. Parents are experts on their particular child.
  • Schools must value the cultures and backgrounds of their students. Invitations of time and talent to parents might look different than traditional models of family engagement, but can enrich schools.
  • Schools must shift from communicating and engaging families in ways that are easiest for them, and instead utilize models of engagement that are responsive to the families’ needs and availability. Schools can provide dinner and babysitting services during school-sponsored events for parents. Meetings can be broadcast to reach more families.
  • School leaders can ask families about the type of school they want for their children and what they need to help their children be successful. When a vision is shared, everyone works together to create it. Communication is key, and it might need to look different for different families.


As students progress in the curriculum, we measure their growth with assessments. Traditional assessments are summative in nature, measuring student understanding at the end of instruction. Classroom-based summative assessments are often one-size fits all, measuring academic growth in the way that is easiest for the teacher. For students from less advantaged backgrounds, these types of tests impede their ability to show their learning.

High-stakes testing further intensifies this problem. Students from these backgrounds have limited exposure to testing topics, tools and practice. They can’t rely on their world outside of school to build their vocabulary with trips to museums, stretch their thinking with logic puzzles and games, or provide opportunities for testing practice or tutoring. Because high-stakes testing impacts gifted education admittance, promotion, magnet school admissions, and college admissions, each of those programs becomes exclusive.

Furthermore, in many school districts around the country, parents opt-in for testing for gifted education, and families from disadvantaged backgrounds often do not know the options available to them. I have known students who think outside of the box and are able to problem-solve in unique and interesting ways, but because they came from a background where gifted education was not part of the conversation, they were not tested.

Recommendations: This traditional method of defining success puts students from backgrounds with limited resources at a disadvantage. To shift this practice, we must find ways to measure learning that can capture each student’s true understanding.

  • In the classroom, teachers must use formative assessment, checking student understanding in real time and providing feedback to help students progress. They must measure student understanding in a way that is responsive to students’ strengths and abilities. By increasing flexibility in how student understanding is assessed, there is less pressure and less bias in testing.
  • For high-stakes testing, universal screening is requisite. Universal screening has been found to identify a much greater proportion of racial minorities and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Additionally, the practices of enrichment utilized in gifted education should be made available in all classrooms to students showing mastery of specific concepts.

Opening Doors

Beginning with an awareness of the accidental biases in our system is the first step. Moving forward, educators, administrators and policy makers need to be aware that future policies and decisions that assume external support, resources and exposure automatically exclude some kids. We are, however, not bound by this trend. At all levels, including classroom, school, and district, changes can be made to shift this tide. Teachers can find ways to creatively connect with families. Schools can provide support to increase attendance at meetings. Districts can assess their testing practices to cast a wider net. With increased reflection and understanding along with an actionable plan, we open doors to opportunities for all students.

Kristen Thorson

Kristen Thorson is a Getting Smart Columnist. She is known for her experience as a teacher, interventionist, and curriculum and assessment developer

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