Monday, December 5, 2011

Why an Opportunity Gap Results in the Observed Achievement Gap

The power of low SES to adversely impact academic outcomes can be most clearly understood through consideration of the theories of Maslow (1959) and self-determination advocates (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  Before the student will be ready to learn his or her basic needs including food, shelter, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem must be satisfied.  In an oversimplification of the need to motivate students, Sullo, (2007) notes, “Until more students decide to work harder, there will be no significant improvement in our schools no matter how much better we teach” (p. 154). 

Such ignorance of the impact of low SES is the very reason the children from low SES households are seen as the problem rather than the victim.  Despite Sullo’s thoughts on the subject, low SES and not “a lack of hard work” makes it less likely for basic needs to be met on a day-to-day basis.  The school system and yes, that includes teachers, must insure basic needs-are met before the teacher will ever “appear” to that student.  The effective leader, in his or her interconnected promotion of the seven correlates of reform, must ensure the basic needs of students are addressed by the school system and each individual teacher so learning for all becomes more likely.

In relation to socio economic status, an opportunity gap is present in public education as “approximately 65% of the observed gap in measured student achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students begins as a gap in opportunity to learn” (GCU Lecture, 2011).  Duke (2000) found the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and educational outcomes “has become so unquestioned that contemporary research is more likely to employ SES as a control variable than as the subject of inquiry” (p. 442).  This opportunity gap is not related to a lack of effort by the student but actual differences in nurturance, and educational opportunities provided by more affluent families compared to those families struggling just to satisfy basic food, shelter, and safety needs.  On average, disadvantaged students enter public schools about 2 years behind their more advantaged counterparts (Knitzer & Lefkowitz, 2006).  Whenever a school fails to adjust to this reality then the child is indeed being denied an opportunity to learn. 

The mission of the common school movement in this country was to alleviate the growing tensions between social-classes.  Reese (2005) quotes Horace Mann, considered the father of the common school movement, who believed the public education system should be “common in the highest sense, as the air and light were common; because it was not  only the cheapest but the best, not only accessible to all, but as a general rule, enjoyed by all” (p. 11). 

The lack of opportunity resulting from being from a low SES family has been a problem since the mid nineteenth century.  Schools will not close the observed achievement gap until the gap in opportunity to learn has been closed.  Only once ensuring satisfaction of the basic needs of students are met can an effective school leader then address intrinsic motivation as the school’s core beliefs, and core values by promoting capitalization of interest and relevance, providing realistic choices among tasks, teaching skills necessary for success, focusing on mastery, helping students set appropriate goals, providing appropriate feedback, limiting use of external constraints in teaching, and fostering relatedness in the classroom.


Bohlin, L., Durwin, C., & Reese-Weber, M. (2008). Ed Psych: Modules. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Duke, N.K. (2000) Nell K. Duke, “For the Rich It’s Richer: Print Experiences and Environments Offers to
            children in Very Low- and Very High-Socioeconomic Status First-Grade," American
            Educational Research Journal, Summer, 2000, vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 441-478.

Grand Canyon University (producer). (2011, October). EDA805 Module 7 Lecture

Reese, W. (2005). America’s public schools: From the common school to “No Child Left

            Behind.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation,
           social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Sullo, B. (2007). Activating the desire to learn. (Chapter 4) Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Taylor, B. O. (2002). The Effective Schools Process: Alive and Well. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(5),