“We need to believe that all students are capable and deserve the chance to succeed in life.”
– Raul Montellano, CFJ Fresno Alum
Not all students are learning and succeeding in school. From its beginning, our public education system has treated students differently based on race, class, and gender. Since the 1960s, education leaders, researchers, and policymakers have addressed unequal outcomes for low-income students in schools by solely looking at academics – specifically test scores as a way to measure the success of students and the schools they attend.
What is the Achievement Gap?
The Achievement Gap is the persistent disparity in academic achievement and/or educational attainment between low-income students of color and their white peers. The gap typically refers to test scores.
The achievement gap between White students and Black, Latinx, and immigrant students is present before they begin school as children. By the time children of color are 3 or 4, they are already behind their White and East Asian counterparts. Since the 1960s, education reforms have fallen into four buckets: standards-based (focused on academics), teacher, instructional, and preschool reforms.
Even with our major efforts to update education codes, content standards, and bring in the ‘next big education programs’ – achievement gaps still elude California leaders.
More importantly, behind the numbers that make up the achievement ‘gaps’ are young people of color – bright and brilliant with so much potential, many of which continue to be left behind.
The achievement gap stubbornly persists across race regardless of family income. In California, Black students continue to be on the bottom of almost every academic category regardless of family wealth. Racial disparities abound, so we must ask ourselves whether or not we are confronting racial disparities by focusing solely on “achievement”.
Since the passage of California’s equitable funding formula and a shift toward integrating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into schools, California's educators and administrators are dedicated to closing the achievement gap and realizing equity in school funding and services. Thanks to the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula and a shift toward integrating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and a focus on school climate, our state's teachers, principals, and administrators have more funding and better guidelines for addressing the gaps youth of color face.
This focus on the social and emotional needs of youth is a big step towards addressing some of the real issues underlying the achievement gap. At Californians for Justice, we believe that the achievement gap is a symptom of a much larger root issue in our education system, the belief gap.
The belief gap is the product of unequal expectations of youth based on their race and zip code. These unequal expectations may be subtle, unconscious, or even well-meaning, but nevertheless they lead to policies, practices, and perceptions that further the cycle of racial inequality.
“We have to change this fixed mindset that some students "have it" and some simply do not. All students are able to achieve.”
– Chris Finley, Director at Large, Fresno Teachers Association
This cycle of inequality is reflected in how investment in public education declined as students of color started to become the majority in California schools. For decades, students of color were provided fewer opportunities and resources to succeed; their classrooms filled with outdated textbooks and broken desks and taught by substitute teachers.
Key Facts You Should Know
- Only 10% of Black students and 15% of Latinx students in California met targeted benchmarks in eighth-grade math, compared to 44% of White students and 29% of students overall.
- The gap begins in elementary school for both Black and Latinx students— by the 4th grade, White students in CA are consistently above state and national averages for math, while Black and Latinx students score below those averages.
- In every county in the state the majority of Latinx students are not proficient in math or English language arts. (The Majority Report: Supporting the Success of Latino Students in California by Education Trust West)
- California’s Latinx students attend the nation’s most segregated schools; are often pushed away from college-prep coursework, and are sometimes perceived as less academically capable than their White or Asian peers.” (The Majority Report: Supporting the Success of Latino Students in California by Education Trust West)
When it comes to how California has addressed achievement gaps for students of color, much progress has been made. Conversations about education equity have spurred healthy policy debates that push education leaders, local and statewide policy makers to think beyond test scores and achievement. Still, more must be done for our public education system to be the beacon of hope and opportunity that all California students deserve.
At Californians for Justice we believe that our schools cannot address racial disparities and gaps in education by solely focusing on the achievement gap--they must also focus on the belief gap. We envision an education system that sees young people as whole, where every adult they encounter in school believes in their fullest potential to learn and succeed in life, college, and career.
Addressing the achievement gap starts with recognizing that at the center of academic disparities across race are the low expectations our education system holds for students of color. To close the achievement gap once and for all, we must acknowledge how low expectations and the belief gap impact students of color through perceptions, policies and practices in and outside the classroom.
By acknowledging the belief gap and actively working to address how it translates into implicit & explicit bias in the classroom, the lack of investment in California’s public schools, and missed opportunities for young people to get the support they need, we can achieve social and racial justice in our schools.
Addressing the belief gap begins with the relationships we build in and outside of school communities – with young people and their families. When we believe that all students are worthy of the best education, their learning and success are much more possible, and the cycle of racial inequality can be disrupted.
“The fact that [my teacher] wanted to understand why I was struggling made me feel comfortable talking with her and trying my best for my missing assignments. She said she believed in me and said I could do it. From that point on, I continued doing the best that I could to turn in my missing work. Right before the second quarter ended, she told me I passed the class with a C! I couldn’t believe what I heard, I just felt so happy about myself. Imagine what students can achieve when we all have teachers and school staff that genuinely care, believe, and have higher expectations for students.”
– Henry Gomez, Sophomore at Cabrillo High School, Long Beach Unified