What are the causes and remedies to the racial achievement gap

Darrick Hamilton, The New School

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010


The purpose of this lecture(s) is to provide students with an interdisciplinary examination of the theoretical underpinnings and a few possible policy responses to the racial achievement gap in schooling. The lecture will present;
  1. Trends of the achievement gap (what the facts are)
  2. Theoretical explanations
    • cultural/behavioral
    • structural/differential treatment
    • combinations of the two
  3. Empirical examinations of the theories
  4. Investigation of some policy responses to address the gap.

The interdisciplinary approach is particularly useful, given the multifaceted theoretical underpinnings available to explain the racial achievement gap. An interdisciplinary approach entails the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods - not commonly used in economics - to examine the validity of alternative explanations. In addition, video media can be used to visually display how some of the interventions aimed at reducing the gap by closing the educational achievement gap are implemented into the classroom.

The class will be conducted in a seminar format, which will require discussion and debate. The lecture will rely on reading from the economics, education, sociology and anthropology literatures.

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Learning Goals

The students should understand

  • Explanations for the racial achievement gap in schooling (i.e., standardized test score differences)
    • Cultural/behavioral
    • Structural/differential treatment
    • Combinations of these two explanations
  • Evidence (both quantitative and qualitative approaches) regarding each of the alternative explanations for the racial achievement gap
  • Policy options for reducing the racial gap in school achievement
  • The usefulness of approaching multifaceted problems like the racial achievement gap from a variety of disciplinary frames as well as the benefits of mixed method empirical approaches to examine such phenomenon.

Context for Use

The lecture is designed to last multiple class periods (2.5-3.5 hours). Since the readings will be heavily empirical, a brief review of how to asses the internal and external validity of a study might be useful. Since the classes will be structured as a seminar, student participation is important.

Description and Teaching Materials

There are basically three types of explanations for the achievement gap:
  1. Cultural/Behavioral traits that are detrimental to the success of one group.
  2. Structural/treatment barriers that are detrimental to the success of one group and privileges the other group.
  3. Some combination of the two in which the structural barriers lead to some internalization and ultimately negative cultural or behavioral responses from the sub-par perfuming group.

The lecture should should:
  • Start by presenting evidence on the achievement gap
  • Then cover the theoretical underpinnings of the three alternative types of explanations for the schooling achievement gap:
    • Cultural/Behavioral
      • Black parents value education less
      • Black students are less motivated
    • Structural/treatment
      • Black families have less resources
      • Black students attend schools with less resources
      • Blacks have access to inferior curriculum across and within schools
      • Teachers show favoritism toward white students
    • Some combination of culture and structure
      • Black students are "reactant" to expected school and labor market discrimination
      • "Acting White" – high achieving black students face ridicule and accusations of acting white
  • Introduce students to empirical literature evaluating each of the alternative perspectives and identify those notions that are supported by evidence and those that are inconsistent with scientific findings.
  • Introduce students to the policy literature that presents and evaluates alternative mechanisms for reducing the racial gap in schooling achievement.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Encourage the students to actively participate and allow for their perceptions of the explanations for the disparities to be presented as long as they base their opinions in some textual evidence.
    • Facilitate this by assigning a 1-3 page op-ed type response paper to the readings. This will get the students thinking about the articles and subject area prior to coming to class.
    • The class will also require media the play mpeg video files so that the class can observe and response to one of the intervention strategies.
  • Then present some of the empirical results that examine the various positions.


Assessment will largely be based on:
  1. classroom participation
  2. Op-ed type response papers (one-three page)
Emphasis is placed on ability of the student to understand and integrate concepts and findings from a variety of perspectives.

References and Resources

Understanding the Racial Gap in Educational Achievement

Fryer, Roland, Jr., and Steven Levitt. 2004. "Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School" The Review of Economics and Statistics86(2):446-464.

Jencks, Christopher and Meredith Phillips. Sept/Oct 1998. America's Next Achievement Test: Closing the Black-White Test Score Gap, The American Prospect.

Education and Behavior: The "Acting White" Phenomenon

Cook, Philip J. and Jens Ludwig. 1998. "The Burden of Acting White: Do Black Adolescents Disparage Academic Achievement?" in The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Fordham, Signithia and John Ogbu. 1986. "Black Students' School Success: Coping with the Burden of 'Acting White'" The Urban Review18(3):176-206.

Harris, Angel. 2006. "I (Don't) Hate School: Revisiting Oppositional Culture Theory of Blacks' Resistance to Schooling" Social Forces, 85(2):797-834.

Ogbu, John. 2004. "Collective Identity and the Burden of 'Acting White' in Black History, Community, and Education" The Urban Review36(1):1-35.

Tyson, Karolyn, William Darity, Jr., and Domini Castellino. 2005. "It's not "a Black Thing": Understanding the Burden of Acting White and other Dilemmas of High Achievement" American Sociological Review70:582-605.

Policy Options for Closing the Racial Education Achievement Gap

Finder, Alan. September 25, 2005. As Test Scores Jump, Raleigh Credits Integration by Income, New York Times, Education Section.

Finnan, C., and H. M. Levin. 2006. "Accelerated Schools and the Obstacles to School Reform" in Mark Constas & Robert Sternberg eds., Translating Educational Theory and Research into Practice,. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.: Mahwah, NJ (2006), pp. 127-150.

Gershburg, Alec and Darrick Hamilton. February 5th, 2007. "Bush's Double Standard on Race in Schools" Christian Science Monitor, Opinion-Editorial.

Greenhouse, Linda. 2007. Justices Limit the Use of Race in School Plans for Integration, New York Times, Washington Section.

Samuels, Christina, "N.C. Program Holds Promise for Gifted Classes" Mimeograph.