Notes on Education: Reversing the Achievement Gap

September 29, 2010

The achievement gap between poor performing schools, primarily located in poor black and brown neighborhoods, has been presented along the axis of: poor students don’t have the same inherent ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds, and our schools are failing poor children. However, a study led by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander suggest that the summer vacation break from school is perhaps the greatest contributing factor to the gap in achievement.

Alexander tracked the progress of 650 first graders from the Baltimore public school system, examining how they scored on the widely used math-and reading-skills exam called the California Achievement Test. Below in table one are the reading scores for the first five years of elementary school, displayed by socioeconomic class- low, middle, and high. The first column shows that by the end of the first grade, there is only a marginal difference between first graders from low and high income students. However, by the by the end of the fifth grade the modest gap between rich and poor more than doubled.

Table One


Class lst Grade         2nd Grade        3rd Grade        4th Grade        5th Grade


Low                  329                   375                   397                   433                   461

Middle              348                   388                   425                   467                   497

High                 361                   418                   460                   506                   534

Interestingly, the California Achievement Test was given at the beginning of the school year in September, after summer vacation ended. When Alexander looked at the school year gains-September to June- a different picture emerged. Table Two shows that poor kids out performed wealthier kids 189 points to 184 points.

Table Two

Class   lst Grade        2nd Grade        3rd Grade        4th Grade        5th Grade     Total


Low                  55                    46                    30                    33                    25      189

Middle              69                    43                    34                    41                    27      214

High                 60                    39                    34                    28                    23      184


Table Three shows how reading scores changed during the summer vacation. The wealthiest children come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. In contrast, when the poorer kids return from summer vacation, theirs scores have dropped almost 4 points. Looking at all the summer gains from first to the fifth grade, we see that the reading scores of the rich kids went up by 52.4 as compared to a .26 rise by poor children. Virtually all of the reading advantage the wealthy students had over the poor students is the results of the differences in way privileged kids learn while they are out of school.

Table Three


Class               lst       2nd 3rd 4th 5th Total


Low                  -3.67    -1.70    2.74      2.89                  0.26

Middle              -3.11    4.18      3.68      2.34                  7.09

High                 15.3      9.22      14.5      13,3                  52.4


Summer vacation is seldom discussed in the debate on education. Yet, Alexander’s work suggests that a lot has been made of reducing class size, rewriting curricula, firing teachers, and closing poor performing schools. But as indicated in Table Two, school and teachers are performing according to standard and maybe exceeding expectation. If poor kids in Baltimore went to school year-round, their test scores would rival those of wealthy students. Alexander’s study has implications for how we can improve the school perform of youth, especially African American youth.

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