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Closing The Achievement Gap

Module by: Lawrence Stroughter. E-mail the author

Summary: Closing the achievement gap via online instruction.



Lawrence Stroughter

Eastern Michigan University

The achievement gap between African American/Black students and other students has haunted the United States of America since the abolishment of slavery. In the beginning of public education in America, institutionalized separate and unequal schools served the citizens of the United States and the residual effects have plagued America every since. After decades of conflicting cultural beliefs about public education, all Americans were promised an equal opportunity to public education. Although many policies and beliefs regarding education for all students have changed drastically over the years, achievement data continues to indicate a clear and predictable achievement gap between African Americans/Black students and other students of the United States of America.

Closing the achievement gap has received a fair amount of attention over recent decades and several components have been identified as contributors to effectively reducing the achievement gap. Curriculum and instruction is one of the key components that can be manipulated by institutional influences. By federal law, states are now required to provided a rigorous curriculum for all students. By state law, teachers are being required to provide instruction that is supportive of each individual student in reaching the standards of the required curriculum.

Using concepts from the detracking movement and differentiated instruction practices, online learning may provide the practical means to close the achievement gap in America. Online learning has the potential to deliver prerequisite skills and rigorous content and further enhance instruction based upon an individual learner’s needs and prior knowledge. The question then becomes, “Does online instruction provide the answer to the achievement gap problem that has haunted American schools for decades?”


Closing the Achievement Gap: Past and Present

In many cases, the achievement gap begins prior to the start of elementary school. Some of the most accepted and agreed upon reasons for the start of the achievement gap include opportunity gaps due to economic disadvantages, literacy inequities, and family/cultural emphasis on education.

Research has identified several variables that affect the academic outcomes of students within the classroom. Variables that are accepted as contributors to academic outcomes include race, class, gender, language, sexual orientation, culture, subject matter, role of school, assessment, learning, teaching, classroom, school, district, community, and society.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (Picture 57.png)

(Weissglass, 2002)

The variables that are most responsive to institutional mandates and most related to closing the achievement gap includes the following components: curriculum and instruction, leadership, professional development of teachers, parental and community involvement, structure/organization of the school (McGee, 2003).

Figure 2
Figure 2 (Picture 58.png)

In the 1970s, data suggested that the achievement gap was closing when curriculum was focused on basic competency (Lee, Racial and ethnic Achievement Gap Trends: Reversing The Progress Toward Equity?, 2002). In the late 1980s and 1990s, data suggested otherwise as the focus of curriculum began to reflect more complex standards (Lee, Racial and ethnic Achievement Gap Trends: Reversing The Progress Toward Equity?, 2002). This research work of the 1970 -1990s implies changing the curriculum may obscure the data showing the achievement gap and therefore the curriculum must be held constant (Lee, Racial and ethnic Achievement Gap Trends: Reversing The Progress Toward Equity?, 2002).

Education reform has oscillated between a variety of different efforts and usually the oscillation occurred prior to valid and reliable research reported out on the effectiveness of the effort (Slavin, 1989). However, in the 1990s to the present, this oscillating pattern may have come to a halt. Most of the 50 states have adopted performance standards for all students, high stakes tests, and school accountability systems to improve public education. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) required states to take action toward closing the achievement gap and therefore is usually thought of as the impetus for the present round of educational reform. NCLB requires high academic standards for all students and analysis of achievement outcomes by 9 different subgroups (Lee, The Impact of Accountability on Racial and Socioeconomic Equity: Considering Both School Resources and Achievement Outcomes, 2004).

Closing the Achievement Gap: Curriculum & Instruction

Curriculum and instruction in the 20th century was influenced greatly by local control, which led to large variances in the academic abilities of graduating high school students. Students living in rural areas had a curriculum that prepared the majority of students primarily for rural living and students living in urban areas received curriculum and instruction that prepared the majority of students primarily for urban living. The concept of tracking was used openly and was supported by the use of intelligence tests to predict early in life the “appropriate” track for students. Usually starting in middle school and certainly by high school, students were placed on academic tracks for colleges or vocational trades (Hallinan, 2004). In many cases, academic tracks were decided prior to students or parents acquiring enough understanding about selection of an appropriate track. Students were simply assigned an academic track by school officials leading to academic/professional careers, general/semiprofessional careers, and vocational/working class careers.

Assigning students to courses based upon observed abilities has lead to a number of issues that continues to contribute to the achievement gap instead of closing the achievement gap. Students assigned to lower level courses have been notoriously underserved by curriculum rigor, quality of instruction, experience opportunities, and academic resource allocations (Hallinan, 2004). Over the years, the detracking movement has brought attention to this issue. Although detracking is not formally supported at an institutional level, government agencies have required rigorous curriculum offerings for all students in recent years. Delivering instructionally rigorous curriculum to all students has caused school districts to examine closely the process of instruction. As a result, several instructional practices have been widely publicized in an effort to close the achievement gap. One practice in particular is differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction uses the following conceptual flow:

Figure 3
Figure 3 (Picture 59.png)

(Oaksford & Jones, 2001)

Differentiated instruction, in theory, requires teachers to instruct individual students with varying ability levels, assess their learning formatively, and adjust future instruction accordingly prior to summative evaluations. Focusing on an individual student’s readiness when developing the most appropriate instructional process makes differentiated instruction a great instructional practice when developing the academic capacity of small numbers of students or academically homogeneous students. However, the practice of differentiated instruction when delivering instruction to large or academically heterogeneous groups of students tends to frustrate most teachers.

The managerial demands required of a teacher, time limits, and predetermined curriculum demands of each course taught makes the theoretical concept of differentiated instruction practically impossible in today’s traditional classroom. In the near future, hybrid or fully online course instruction may offer solutions for the challenges that accompany the theoretical concept of differentiated instruction.

Closing the Achievement Gap: Online Learning

Figure 4
Figure 4 (Picture 2.png)

(Koller, 2012)

Daphne Koller presented the above conceptual framework for differentiated online instruction. This conceptual framework illustrates the ability of online modules to be offered in a way that prerequisite skills are taken into consideration prior to the primary instructional unit. Students are offered the option for remedial modules and exploratory modules based solely upon the individual student’s needs and/or desires.

As technology continues to evolve in usability, becomes more academically intuitive and more accessible to American Public School students, the theoretical concept of differentiated learning can be more fully achieved. If differentiated instruction can be achieved, then the researchable question is, “Does online instruction provide the answer to the achievement gap problem that has haunted American schools for decades?”

Figure 5
Figure 5 (Picture 60.png)

After considering the conceptual framework of differentiated instruction as a model, the above conceptual framework illustrates a fully differentiated instructional online process. In this online conceptual framework, each student will receive tailored instructional modules created and assessed based on the learners demonstrated prior learning.

Data supporting the closing of the achievement gap may follow the wide spread use of online instruction as a result of several reasons including customized rigorous instruction, individual student processing time freedoms, and lack of teacher bias.


The societal problem of closing the achievement gap has troubled the United States of America for a very long time. Several efforts to closing the achievement gap have been tried and have failed to show significant results in closing the achievement gap. Providing rigorous standards for all students and truly differentiating instruction for every student through online learning may be the answer to closing the achievement gap in American Schools.


Hallinan, M. T. (2004). Why Children Are Still Grouped By Ability. Education Next.

Koller, D. (2012, June). TEDGlobal. Retrieved from FILMED JUN 2012 • POSTED AUG 2012 •

Lee, J. (2002). Racial and ethnic Achievement Gap Trends: Reversing The Progress Toward Equity? Educational Researcher, 3-12.

Lee, J. (2004). The Impact of Accountability on Racial and Socioeconomic Equity: Considering Both School Resources and Achievement Outcomes. American Educational research Journal, 797-832.

McGee, G. W. (2003). Closing Illinois' Achievement Gap: Lessons From The "Golden Spike" High Poverty High Performing Schools. American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting. Chicago.

Oaksford, L., & Jones, L. (2001). Differentiated instruction abstract.

Slavin, R. E. (1989). The PET and The Pendulum. Phi Delta Kappan, 752-758.

Weissglass, J. (2002). Inequity in Mathematics Education: Questions for Educators. The Mathematics Educator, 35.

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