School Beat: Closing the Achievement Gap

by Lisa Schiff on September 27, 2007

Closing the “Achievement Gap”—the dramatic and persistent difference in educational attainment between African-American and Latino students versus White and Asian students—is among the most serious challenges facing San Francisco’s public schools and indeed all public schools throughout the country. The achievement gap is a problem that has been with us for some time and, sadly, should be no surprise to anyone given that discrimination and inequality persist throughout our society, even in our schools.

Closing the achievement gap has been approached from many educational angles, including desegregation efforts (which are important to pursue on their own merits), school redesign (for instance, the previous Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s strategy of the Dream School program, which specifically targeted schools with a high-percentage of low-performing, minority students), charter schools, and for some families, home-schooling. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is fueled in large part by a manipulation of general concern and frustration with the achievement gap as a national phenomenon.

But despite such efforts the achievement gap persists. In fact, sticking with the highly limited measure of standardized test scores, while on the whole student test scores make the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) the highest ranking urban district, our African-American and Latino students as a group, rank lower than African-American and Latino students in most other urban districts in the state.

Clearly something has got to change. But before change must come understanding, and understanding the causes of the achievement gap requires accepting and working through some hard truths about American schools and American society.

For decades now, social scientists have been examining the achievement gap. One of the most interesting and compelling of these researchers was the late John Ogbu, who was a professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley where he studied the educational experiences of minority communities in a variety of countries, including the United States (and specifically the Bay Area) and developed a framework called the “cultural-ecological theory of school performance.” (Note: Much of the discussion in this column is based on Ogbu’s 1998 article “Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education.” (With H. D. Simons).Anthropology and Education Quarterly, vol.29(2): 155-188.)

A memorial webpage ( describes the kernel of Ogbu’s research this way:

“At the heart of his work was the way Ogbu differentiated minority groups. “Voluntary minorities,” he said, “come to a new environment with their collective identity intact, because it was an identity already in place prior to their emigration. In marked contrast, involuntary minorities such as African Americans formed their collective identity after coming to the New World and in the context of oppression by the dominant society. ”

Ogbu considered their collective identity “oppositional,” and the collective identity of voluntary minorities “non-oppositional.” His distinction became part of the groundwork for understanding and debate on race and ethnic differences in educational and economic achievement.

In regards to public education, Ogbu found that involuntary minority communities have developed a strong ambivalence towards schools that significantly affects the school experiences of involuntary minority children, and is an important contributing factor to the achievement gap. This ambivalence arises out of the conflict between the widely held belief that education is essential to success in life and the contradictory real experiences of discrimination, including the unmet promise of school success resulting in similar successes outside of school (for example with better jobs).

At the core is a fundamental mistrust based on past experience of discrimination in (white) mainstream society and its institutions. Such mistrust extends to schools too, which may be viewed skeptically by minority parents who wonder about the quality of the education being provided to their children as well as the often associated cultural imposition that is interwoven into schools through the curriculum and the low percentage of minority teachers compared to the percentage of minority students.

These findings should resonate strongly with those following any of the debates and concerns around equity in San Francisco’s schools. Over the last several years parents and researchers have highlighted in their own ways how schools that have a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino students also have a disproportionate number of new teachers (and a disproportionately low number of African-American and Latino teachers). Those same schools are also carrying a greater financial burden for the costs of teachers’ salaries for the entire district, given the approach of charging schools an averaging of teachers’ salaries in the district as opposed to the actual cost of the specific teachers at that school.

Concerns have also been raised about the availability of educational programs across schools, choices to close some schools and not others and even which parts of the city are served by school bus routes. These are all issues that affect the educational quality available to all students, and have a particularly strong impact on the school experience of minority children and their parents. And, they are all contributing factors to the achievement gap.

Gaining a richer understanding of the achievement gap is the first step. Moving on to solutions is the second. Going back to Ogbu, his work does not identify specific strategies, but he does highlight some key areas for schools, particularly teachers, and the community to pay attention to:

Build trust by respecting students’ cultures and affirming that succeeding in school will not negatively impact their cultural identity.

Use culturally responsive instruction, including curricula and associated material, that are sensitive to students’ varying cultures and learning styles.

Explicitly deal with opposition/ambivalence by openly acknowledging the conflicting hopes and realities that students and their families are dealing with in regard to school. Ogbu sees this as an opportunity for non-minority teachers to better understand the how their students experience school and for students to better understand their own actions.

Refer to role models who were successful but maintained strong positive minority identity

Maintain high standards for all students and in this way build trust with students and parents while at the same time improving students’ educational achievement.

Increase parent and community involvement by making contact with parents positive. Parents should be notified when their children are succeeding, not just when their children are causing problems.

Addressing the achievement gap has not just been a research problem for university faculty. In San Francisco, it has been at the top of the list of issues for the SFSUD school board and district administrators for quite some time. Earlier this year, district staff developed a draft plan for the district that provided concrete suggestions for addressing the achievement gap and other top priority issues. These suggestions include implementation steps and cost estimates, and address the problem from a variety of angles, including some of the areas highlighted by Ogbu.

For instance, one recommendation is to expand the current program of Parent Liaisons so that stronger “family-school partnerships” focusing on academic achievement can be developed. Another recommendation is to require all 7th graders create and maintain over time a “5 Year Plan” that has students lay out an educational “path” from 8th grade to graduation. Such a plan would provide a means for students to focus both on graduating and post-graduation goals, including thinking in advance about requirements for colleges or other opportunities.

An entire section of recommendations focuses on recruiting a diverse set of teachers and ensuring that those teachers are working across the district and are not segregated themselves in certain schools (recent studies have identified teacher segregation as an issue, not just student segregation). Along with this are recommendations for improved professional development for all educational staff.

The achievement gap is thus the result of a complex of forces, some material and some cultural, some directly under the control of school districts, but many not. The challenge now is to change what we can, when we can, as part of a steady effort to transform our schools and our society, so that when we say we are a nation of equal opportunity it actually means something.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco ( and the PTA (

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