Theoretical Perspectives on Achievement Gap in American Education

Abstract

The achievement gap in American education has been a source of concern with its association with adverse social and economic outcomes to society. Establishing policies that address the gap effectively has however been challenged by opposing theories explaining the causes of the achievement gap. This paper considers how theoretical paradigms such as functionalism, conflict theories and postmodernism advanced in sociology of education explain the achievement gap. Whereas functionalism regards the achievement gap to represent actual individual abilities, the conflict theories regard such a gap to represent the flaws in the education system that favor the performance of a dominant group over the others. The postmodernism theory on its part regards the achievement gap to be a result of flawed measurement that considers knowledge from only one perspective – the assessor’s perspective – disregarding other important forms of knowledge that the children being assessed possess.

Background

The discourse concerning achievement gap has elicited much controversy mainly relating to the opposing viewpoints of it being an environmental outcome or a heredity-derived occurrence. Such controversy gained root with the U.S military test of mental ability in 1917 that showed whites to perform better than blacks, which many biological determinists argued to be a proof of the innate nature of the achievement gap (Jencks & Phillips, 1998, pp.15-17). However, cultural determinists immediately challenged such a contention arguing that culture had a significant effect on the noted differences between blacks and whites. Other environmental aspects such as differences in parenting practices between blacks and whites have been argued to contribute to the achievement gap (Jencks & Phillips, 1998).

Subsequent events and studies have challenged the supremacy of either view. For instance, the Holocaust events in 1945 and the Supreme Court’s declaration that racial segregation is unconstitutional in 1954 made it untenable to reference genetic aspects as antecedents of racial differences (Jencks & Phillips, 1998, p.16). However, the genetic –proposition was reinvented with Arthur Jensen 1969 article that highlighted that programs targeted at disadvantaged groups to alleviate the gap had failed (cited in Jencks & Phillips, 1998, p. 16). Subsequent arguments in favor of the genetic proposition were provided by the Bell Curve (a 1994 publication by Richard J. Herrnstein – a psychologist – and Charles Murray – a political scientist) and, more recently, an opinion by James Watson – one of the scientists who delineated the molecular structure of DNA. On the other hand, studies indicating that test scores of black children integrated into white environments (e.g. via adoption or following desegregation) improve, have provided support for the environmental proposition (Jencks & Phillips, 1998, pp.16-18).

The controversy existing in delineating the causes of the achievement gap arises from the lack of adequate large-scale experiments that would provide agreeable data across the opposing viewpoints. As Jencks and Phillips (1998) point out, continued theorizing may not resolve the controversy without “evidence that the theorist[s] cannot control” (p. 42). Nevertheless, highlighting different conceptualization of the achievement gap provides a basis for understanding the challenges that face education policies that arise from a single theory. This paper contributes to the theoretical assessment of the achievement gap by highlighting how theoretical paradigms advanced in the study of sociology of education explain the achievement gap in the American education. The theories considered are structural functionalism, conflict theories, and postmodernism. In the discussion on the conflict theory, the paper also considers the issue of cultural reproduction explains the achievement gap. First, however, the paper highlights the effects of the achievement gap to demonstrate why it is an important aspect worth of consideration. Part two here.

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