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SCUSD Doesn’t Have an Achievement Gap: America Does

SCUSD Doesn't Have an Achievement Gap: America Does

It’s a good news/bad news story. The good news is that the Santa Clara Unified School District doesn’t have an achievement gap compared to districts with similar demographic profiles. The bad news is that the United States has a worsening academic achievement gap that’s tracking the last half-century’s growing economic divide.

For the last 40 years, the academic “achievement gap” has been a reliable staple in political and educational controversy. The controversy has roosted in this year’s SCUSD school board election, with candidate Chris Stampolis making it a cornerstone of his campaign.


California Department of Education 2011 and 2012 California Academic Performance Index (API) scores* show that, in fact, SCUSD school performance is comparable to other local districts – Campbell, Sunnyvale, San Jose Unified – that share its demographic profile. Statewide, SCUSD’s API is slightly higher than average.

Comparing individual schools does indeed reveal a gap. But it’s one that’s hardly new news and reaches far beyond SCUSD: The close correlation of academic achievement to economic status. So clear is this correlation that some say “API” should stand for Affluent Parent Index.

Quite simply, districts such as Cupertino – and schools such as SCUSD’s Millikin – with few students from socio-economically disadvantaged** families average dramatically higher test scores. There’s a similar, but less marked, inverse correlation between the number students who aren’t fully proficient in English and API scores.

Anyone who’s taken a beginning statistics class knows that correlation doesn’t equal causation. However, the correlation of educational achievement and affluence – and its converse, academic failure and poverty – is so marked that it’s been a central question in discussions of public education since the beginning of public education. And, notably in the last 40 years since the phrase “achievement gap” was coined.

The reasons are profound, begin long before children enter the school system, and extend well beyond the six or seven hours a day they’re at school, according to education researcher Eric Jensen’s 2009 book, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It.” Jensen’s analysis ( brings together neurological and sociological research to explain why, quite simply, poor children do worse in school than middle class and rich ones.

Starting with poor neonatal care and a higher likelihood of in utero exposure to environmental toxins, drugs, and alcohol, poor children face lives of high stress and low support.

They are more likely to experience chronic abuse and violence, malnutrition, and outright hunger. They are less likely to have proper medical care and more likely to suffer from untreated injuries and chronic illnesses such as asthma.

They experience frequent moves and homelessness – corresponding educational and social disruption and lack of continuity.

Poor parents are more likely to be absent – often working long hours and multiple jobs – and childcare is likely to be substandard and minimal. Poor children also encounter greater physical danger in daily life from street crime, dangerous homes, and environmental toxins.

Poverty also correlates with less of the kind of stimulation that nurtures the developing brain.

Analysis by UCLA sociologist Meredith Phillips reveals that by the time they’re six middle class and rich children have already spent 1,300 more hours than poor children in activities away from home, daycare and school – for example, trips to the library and visits to museums. By the time these children start school, they’ve spent about 400 more hours than poor children in activities that prepare them to read. And, with more disposable income, affluent families spend about $7,500 more than low-income families on children’s activities.

There’s more bad news. Things are getting measurably worse, with the academic achievement gap tracking the U.S.’s growing disparity between rich and poor, according to analysis by social science research foundation Russell Sage (

Stanford researcher Sean Reardon has noted a growing academic achievement gap between rich and poor over the last 60 years. “The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier,” he wrote in a 2007 Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis ( study. “It appears that the income achievement gap has been growing steadily for at least 50 years.”

Asking the public education system to fix this is asking a lot.

“Schools are not the primary cause of the problem,” Reardon said in a 2012 article. “If they were, the test-score gap would widen as students progress through school, but this does not happen. The test-score gap between eighth-grade students from high-and low-income families is no larger than the school-readiness gap among kindergartners. The roots of widening educational inequality appear to lie in early childhood, not in schools.”

Several of the researchers in this field have formulated teaching methods to address these deficits, but putting them in place requires money. In fact, Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Fellow and UC Santa Barbara professor Jon Sonstelie pegs the cost of each 10-point change in subsidized lunch eligibility changes the budget per student at about $1,200. “Very high budgets would be necessary for schools serving low-income neighborhoods to meet the state’s achievement standards,” he wrote in a 2007 PPIC report.

However, in just the last four years California has cut K-12 spending by $1,000 per student, according to the California Budget Project ( And if this year’s Proposition 30 doesn’t pass, per-pupil spending will drop another $900.

The bottom line: The achievement gap isn’t an SCUSD problem. And it’s not solely a California problem. It’s an American problem.

“A free society like ours cannot stand on a permanently ignorant lower class,” said an 1869 New York Times editorial on the question of whether government should fund free education for the poor that included high school and even college – a radical idea at the time. “It is for our interest to educate…It is more economical to give schools than to give alms.”

* API scores range from 200 to 1,000. The target API for California schools is 800.

**Students are considered socio-economically disadvantaged if they are eligible for free or low-cost lunch – 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line respectively – or if neither parent graduated from high school. The 2012 federal poverty level for a family of 4 is $23,050.


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