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Why are minority and low-income students underperforming and how

should public schools address this?

Amaya Holliday

Senior Project Advisor: Jessica McCallum

Low socioeconomic status (SES) and minority students are performing significantly lower than
middle/high income White and Asian students. This is perpetuating generational poverty and
racial inequality because it gives these students a disadvantage to break these unfair cycles. I
studied why these students are not achieving at the same level as White and Asian students and
compiled my research from academic research articles written by professionals in the field.
Through my research, I discovered when you teach low SES and minority students to have
positive academic identities, how students view themselves as a learner, their performance
enhances. Based on my research, minority and low SES student’s academic achievement
improve if they are taught to values their learning and believe they are capable of achieving
academically. Having a positive academic identity will empower these marginalized students to
improve academically, which will ultimately close the gap between them and middle/high SES
White and Asian students, thus leading to a more equal society.

12th Grade Humanities

Animas High School
11 March 2019
Part I: Introduction

The United States offers free public education, however, this education comes with a cost:

perpetuating societal inequality. This is proven in the educational achievement gap because

low-income and minority students are rarely meeting or exceeding standards on standardized

tests. The achievement gap refers to the significant difference between standardized test scores of

minority and low-income students compared to White/Asian and middle/high-income students.

The achievement gap has existed for over five decades. It is time to follow the wishes of our

Founding fathers, American students deserve an equal education.

This paper will discuss the achievement gap in both racial and socioeconomic categories and the

correlation between the two. Minority and low-income students do not receive the same type of

education as the majority of their their White or Asian affluent peers. As a result, these students

are set up for a future disadvantage. This makes their future success harder to obtain because

they they are judged against students who were more educationally prepared and privileged. The

socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps in American Public Schools are perpetuating

inequality in American society and giving low-income and minority students inferior academic

confidence compared to their White and Asian peers. This lack of confidence is known as a

negative academic identity because they identify as an inadequate student. The most effective

way to solve this issue is to create positive academic identities for minority and low-income

students, within the current public school system.

Part II: Historical Context/Background Knowledge

Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17th, 1954 the verdict for Brown v. Board of Education was announced, and schools

were finally desegregated. This was one of the defining moments in educational policy. Since

desegregation, American Public Schools have barely improved for African American and

minority students (students whose race or ethnicity is different from the majority of the

population they are in). These students repeatedly score significantly lower on the standardized

tests which all American students must take. These tests all have the same questions and answers

which make standardized tests the bases of how all American students are measured. The formal

name for the gap between minority and majority student is the achievement gap.

Public schools in the United States are divided into districts and each district is given federal,

state, and district funding. The majority of the funding comes from the taxes of district residents.

This means districts with a majority lower class will get less funding than a middle class or

high-income district. For example, The U.S. News and World Report’s education reporter Laura

Camera wrote “school districts with the highest rates of poverty receive about $1,000 less per

student in state and local funding than those with the lowest rates of poverty, according to a new

report released Tuesday by The Education Trust,” ( par 2). Low funded schools cannot afford the

same resources as well-funded schools such as things like up-to-date textbooks, smaller

student-teacher ratios, after-school programs, up-to-date technology, and quality facilities.

Low-income students especially need these resources because it usually is not provided at home.

In most cases, these low-income district schools actually need more funds for their students

because low-income families cannot provide the same opportunities. For example, low-income

families can not afford a tutor to help their student and their student most likely cannot get

one-on-one support from their teacher or parent. On the other side of the spectrum, middle and

upper-class districts will have more money for schools and can hire more faculty, giving the

student more support via lower adult to student ratio. In reality, these students most likely come

from homes that can already afford a tutor. This benefit puts middle and high-income student

way ahead of their low-income peers.

The term “achievement gap” was coined by James S. Coleman, who worked on the Coleman

Report under the Johnson Administration. He was tasked with going through the data from the

largest social science survey in history. The report was conducted to see how schools were

doing post-desegregation (Hill). In this 737-page report: “Coleman was the first to document

what came to be known as the achievement gap—African-American children were several grade

levels behind their white counterparts in school,” thus the discovery of the racial achievement

gap (Dickinson par 6).

Since the discovery of the achievement gap, the US Department of Education has tried to solve

it. In 2001, No Child Left Behind was implemented in American public schools under George

W. Bush’s presidency. Many educators saw this controversial legislation as the start of the

“teach to the test culture,” which made teachers become hyper-focused on their student’s test

score. In 2009 the Obama Administration created Race to the Top with the goal of giving

incentives for teachers to be more innovative. According to the National Education Association,

“the Obama Administration created the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund to encourage states to

implement performance pay systems and other changes,” (Rosales par 2). This means teachers

get paid based on the achievement of their class. The idea behind paying teachers based on their

performance has good intentions, such as improving teacher accountability, building in

motivation for teachers to go the extra mile, and supporting innovation in the classroom. In

reality, teachers cannot choose their classes or students, making this reform unhelpful in solving

the achievement gap. A teacher who starts a school year with an underperforming class might

work externally hard and support huge academic growth in their students, but still, fall short in

standardized test scores. While across town teacher may start the year with a privilege, well

educated, well-resourced class yet barely do their job and still come up with higher test scores.

Solving the achievement gap is important because the education system has not changed in

decades. The government have updated their policies, yet something is not working. Schools are

still segregated and low-income district schools remain underfunded. In the piece “Improving

African American Student Outcomes: Understanding Educational Achievement and Strategies to

Close Opportunity Gaps,” the author reports, “71% of African American students attend schools

that are majority minority students. Additionally, unqualified teachers tend to teach at

low-income majority minority schools,” (Cowan Pitre 213). This fact will emphasize racial

inequality in schools since Brown v. Board of Education. For most low-income students, their

education is a path out of generational poverty, which refers to when a family has been in

poverty for more than two generations. The result of generational poverty is that low-income

students are less likely to go to college, which leads them to lower paying jobs and less

opportunity overall. This cycle is likely to repeat itself through the next generations. Another

term related to generational poverty is socioeconomic status (SES), the combination of

economic and social class. It stems from a person’s job, education level, and income. For

student’s, their socioeconomic status has a substantial impact on their education.

In the current era of education reform, educators are looking at academic identity as a solution to

the injustices in the American Public Education system. Academic identity is the identity a

student has about who they are as a learner. It is often shaped by early experiences at school and

can predict the student's motivation throughout their schooling; simply stated, academic

self-esteem. Additionally, research had been conducted about minority and low-income student’s

academic identities. It shows these groups have the lowest self-esteem as learners and if they

learn to improve it then their performance will improve.

Part III: Research and Analysis

Racial Achievement Gaps

Minority students score significantly lower on standardized tests than their white and Asian

peers. For example on the 2018 SAT, African American students’ mean score was 946; Latino

Students scored 990; White Students scored 1123; Asian students got the highest out of any

group with 1223. These scores determine college acceptance and merit-based scholarships.

Clearly, this creates another barrier for minority students pursuing college or universities. In

regards to post-secondary education, “over the 2014–16 period, approximately 70 percent of

Asian households had a member with a Bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 23 percent of

Hispanic households,” (Noel par 8). These tests are especially important for students’ futures and

can predict college acceptances. If minority students become confident in their academic abilities

their standardized test scores can improve. Minority students need to understand they not only

have the right to attend college just like their White and Asian peers. They are also fully capable

of being successful in a post-secondary environment, despite the many reasons they have been

taught to not value themselves academically.

For a variety of different reasons, minority students have lower academic identities compared to

White and Asian students. This negative academic identity is the result of years of

institutionalized racism in American Public Schools. Minority students, mostly Black and Latino

students are pushed away from college prep classes and towards trade programs. Steve Strand

discusses this in his work: “School Effects and Ethnic, Gender and Socio-Economic Gaps in

Educational Achievement at Age 11,” “Equally the underachievement of middle and high SES

Black pupils may reflect factors within the school system such as teacher’s low educational

expectations or pervasive racism within the educational process,” (Strand par 35). This

conclusion suggests minority students are taught to believe their teachers have low expectations

for them. Teachers acting this way towards minority students this makes it so students do not feel

the need to work hard and try to excel academically. Unfortunately, minorities have undervalued

academic identities generations. If not addressed now then our society will continue on this

preventable and destructive path.

Another problem minority students face that contributes to their low academic identities is the

lack of their racial representation in what they are studying. It is hard for minority students to see

the relevance of their schooling when they can not see themselves in what they are learning

about. In her research paper, Charisse Cowan Pitre states, “academic content must be linked in

meaningful ways to the lives of students,” ( 214). Similarly, diversity within teaching staff is

beneficial for having for minority students’ academic identity. The article, “To Get to College. It

helps Black Students to have a Black Teacher Early On” say, “their presence (black teachers)

gives students a tangible example of what educational attainment might look like and therefore

something to aspire toward, such as going to college,” (Mayowa par. 7). African American

students are more likely to graduate if they have an African American teacher in elementary

school. “Having at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s

probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent,” (Rosen par 2). It is important for students

to see their teachers as mentors. A black student with black teachers sees how their education as

minority student matters and is relevant. Additionally, having a diverse array of teachers can be

just as transformative for other minority students such as Latinos and Native Americans.

Academic identity is very important for minorities to have because they are living in a world of

unfair stereotypes, culturally relevant education, and institutionalized racism. School systems

need to teach minorities the positives aspects of their cultural identities. Most importantly,

school systems that taught minorities the positives aspects of their cultural identities saw

significant academic improvements.

The Tucson Unified School District implemented Raza (race) ethnic studies classes for their

large Hispanic population to combat their achievement gap. The classes were widely successful

because the students felt valued. One student said, “What they started teaching us was so

interesting. I would go home with articles and I would just read them over and over again. I

started getting A’s and B’s,” (Closing the Achievement Gap 00:10). This anecdote suggests if

minority students are taught about their cultural identity they will see schools as more relevant.

This ultimately will reflect in their grades, which is a factor contributing to future outcomes,

such as graduation and college acceptance. Another student who was part of the Raza program


“This [the class] was something really big for me because I had the opportunity with

Raza studies to learn about my cultura. I was always the quiet girl in the back of the class

like I didn’t want to talk. I don’t know what this is about. I am scared to talk. He [the

Raza studies teacher] tends to teach us how to express ourselves so we can have that

confidence. (Closing the Achievement Gap 01:11)

This class gave minority students the chance to shape their academic identities and see

themselves in their curriculum. Both quotes suggest implementing curriculums similar to

Tucson's Raza ethnic studies, could improve grades, create more confident students, and close

the achievement gap. Unfortunately, this program was forced to stop because lawmakers in

Arizona saw it as creating ethnic solidarity and anti-American values (“The Case Against Ethnic

Studies”). The American school system is unique because of its diversity. Having classes about

student’s races is not un-American. It is instead teaching students to celebrate their diversity and

understand their place in American history. Additionally, the Raza studies program was

significantly closing the achievement gap in Tucson schools. Even though this program was

unfairly shut down, it can be an effective model for schools around the country with large

minority populations to use to close the achievement gap and value minority students.


The socioeconomic achievement gap is discussed less than the racial achievement gap, yet it

actually is larger and is continuing to grow, according to Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon,

(“Poverty and Race” par 21). The socioeconomic achievement gap is also present in other

developed nations. In ​“School Effects and Ethnic, Gender and Socio-Economic Gaps in

Educational Achievement at Age 11,” Steve Strand outline this in his pieces, ​“It is important to

note that not all ‘gaps’ are of the same size; for example, the social class gap in achievement in

England has been reported to be six times larger than the gender gap, and three times larger than

the ethnic gap, at age 14,” ( par 2). This gap is due to the lack of resources and opportunities low

SES students have compared to middle and high SES students have. Additionally, “SES affects

overall human functioning, including our physical and mental health. Low SES and its correlates,

such as lower educational achievement, poverty, and poor health, ultimately affect our society,”

(“Ethnic and Racial Minorities & Socioeconomic Status” par 2). These added struggles make it

even harder for Low SES student to participate in school. Furthermore, lower-income students

do not have the same opportunities middle class and wealthy students have. These include SAT

tutors, summer programs, parents who can help with homework, internet access at home, and

expensive extracurriculars. All these opportunities support wealthy students’ education and

resumes which pushes them further ahead in achievement. Additionally, having this support

shows wealthy students the importance of their education because if their parents/ guardians are

willing to spend extra money on out-of-school educational activities it demonstrates the

importance and value of the wealthy student’s education and educational achievement. All this

extra support leads wealthy students to score significantly higher on the SAT, which is one of the

most important tests, a K-12 student will ever take.

The SAT is extremely important for all students’ future, yet it is another way the education

systems. According to the 2014 ​Washington Post​ Article, “​These Four Charts Show How the

SAT Favors Rich, Educated families,” Zachary A. Goldfarb states:

“Students from families earning more than $200,000 a year average a combined score of

1,714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined

score of 1,326. The writing test has the widest score gap, perhaps explaining why College

Board officials are dropping the essay.” (par 2)

High SAT scores help students earn merit-based scholarships and be granted acceptance to

colleges. Unfortunately, lower scores get less money, making it financially impossible for a

low-income student to afford college. The result of the achievement gap for low socioeconomic

status students not attending college, in turn, adds to the cycle of generational poverty.

Low- income students in college need to have positive academic identities because they will be

attending college with mainly middle and high-income peers. This creates social barriers. High

school college counselor, Jessica Adams, outlines this in her thesis, “Hearing Student Voices:

Low Income TRiO and Barriers in Higher Education,”:

For example, low-income freshman students entering into college institutions are at a

severe disadvantage from the moment they step foot on campus because their campus

environment is operating on a different set of social norms and expectations that are

different from the students’ previous social environment. Additionally, these students are

not made aware of the fact that they are operating in an environment without the

necessary “tools” or cultural capital to be able to successfully transition and thrive like

other students around them. (Adams 14)

These middle and upper class students are groomed for college and have the necessary “tools”

and cultural capital, such as networking skills and the financial backing of their families. This is

why it is so pertinent for low-income students to have positive academic identities starting at a

young age so they can have the perseverance and confidence to navigate through college.

Without confidence in themselves, they will drop out due to the social barriers they come across.

Additionally, low socioeconomic students usually have parents who never went to college which

makes it harder for low SES students to navigate the college admissions process. According to

the National Center for Education Statistics report “Postsecondary Attainment: Differences by

Socioeconomic Status, ” “a smaller percentage of students of low socioeconomic status (SES)

than students of middle SES attained a bachelor’s or higher degree within 8 years of high school

completion (14 vs. 29 percent),” (Postsecondary 1). This is due to the cost of college and the

values of low-income families. Ruby Payne, American Educator and published author on poverty

and education and author of ​Hidden Rules​ of socioeconomic classes. Payne says people in the

lower class see education as “valued and revered as abstract but not as reality.” This could be

changed through improving academic identity. If low-income students are taught they are

capable of capable of succeeding in college they are more likely to apply when the time comes

and actually see their education as a reality .

The struggles of low SES students can be positively impacted through supporting students and

shaping their academic identities positively. ​Former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan

believes, "Educators across the country understand that low-income students need extra support

and resources to succeed, but in far too many places policies for assigning teachers and

allocating resources are perpetuating the problem rather than solving it." (More Than par 4).

During the November 30, 2011, Department of Education press briefing the Secretary stated:

A Department of Education analysis found that providing low-income schools with

comparable spending would cost as little as 1 percent of the average district's total

spending. The analysis also found that extra resources would make a big impact by

adding as much as between 4 percent and 15 percent to the budget of schools serving

high numbers of students who live in poverty. (More Than 40% par 5)

If this funding model was ​implemented, low SES students would have more support staff and

resources in their schools which would improve the students experience at school because their

its facilities and resources would be comparable to higher SES schools. This plays into academic

identity because in order for a student to feel confident in themselves they need to be confident

in their school. For example, a low-income student in a low-income district will feel discouraged

to learn if their teacher is overwhelmed by an under-resourced and overcrowded class. If they are

struggling the teacher will not have the resources to support the student and they will slip

through the crack, each year falling further behind. ​In the article, “​Educating the Whole Child:

Improving School Climate to Support Student Success,” authors Linda Darling-Hammond and

Channa Cook-Harvey wrote:

Research has found that a positive school climate improves academic achievement and

reduces the negative effects of poverty on achievement, boosting grades, test scores, and

student engagement.(​03​) Indeed, new knowledge about human learning and development

demonstrates that a positive school environment is not a “frill” to be attended to after

academics and discipline are taken care of. Instead, it is the primary pathway to effective

learning. (par 6)

​A low income student in a low-income district will feel discouraged to learn when their school

is falling apart and their classes are overcrowded. Both of those examples, contribute negatively

to a school’s environment and are the result of underfunding. If a low-income student’s school

environment improves so will their identity and, as outlined above, will improve their

engagement as a learner.

Race-based Socioeconomic Disadvantages

The connection between race and socioeconomics is very important to address. Generally, White

and Asian families earn more money than other minorities. For example, “today, African

American men working full time and year-round have 72 percent of the average earnings of

comparable white men. For African American and White women, the ratio is 85 percent,”

(Rodgers par 1). This wage gap keeps minority parents stuck in poverty and adds greater a

disadvantage for their children's educational opportunities. The National Center for Education

Statistics reported:

“In 2005, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students were more likely

to be eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program than were their White and

Asian/Pacific Islander peers. Black and Hispanic students were also the most likely to

attend high-poverty schools (as gauged by program eligibility), while Asian/Pacific

Islander students were the most likely to attend low-poverty schools.” (“Status and

Trends” par 13)

These statistics can result in minorities having a lack of proper education and staying in

generational poverty. Education is a way out of these challenges. Specifically, how they view

school as a tool to break the cycle of poverty. Both low-income and minority students suffer

from the “Summer Slump,” which is the loss of learning students who spend the entire summer

without any educational activities experience. An article from the Brookings Institute outlines


“An early comprehensive review of the literature summarized several findings regarding

summer loss.[2] The authors concluded that: (1) on average, students’ achievement

scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2)

declines were sharper for math than for reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at

higher grade levels. Importantly, they also concluded that income-based reading gaps

grew over the summer, given that middle-class students tended to show improvement in

reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss. However, they did

not find differential summer learning in math, or by gender or race in either subject.”

(Quinn, Polikoff par 2).

This phenomenon is yet another setback for marginalized students. If these students have

positive academic identities and see value in education, they would be able to create their own

educationally stimulating activities. For example, educational activities do not need to be

expensive summer camps or service trips. Libraries, community centers, and YMCA’s are all

affordable options for students to learn in the summer. However, students will not partake in

these if they see education as irrelevant. Again, this shows the importance of fostering a

student’s academic identities.

Asian Students

Asians are the only minority students who actually outperform white students. They are often

used as a counter-argument for the achievement gap because they are a racial minority that

achieves high scores on standardized tests. Additionally, Asians are stereotyped as the strongest

students. This stereotype has both positive and negative impacts on Asian’s academic identities.

For Asian students who perform well, this stereotype aids in having strong academic confidence.

The downside for Asian students is when they fall on the other side of the spectrum. The article

“Whites Aren’t Bad, Asian Americans Are Just Better: Asymmetrical Attributions for the

White–Asian American Achievement Gap,” for the Journal of Latinos and Education states,

“many Asian American students in need of additional assistance or alternative pedagogies fall

through the cracks of the traditional school system because they are assumed to be hard-working,

responsible, and smart enough to make it on your own,” (Sperling par 9). This stereotype can

make poor performing Asian students afraid to ask for help. Teachers should see their students

for who they are not their stereotype. Regardless of a student’s race, teachers should try to boost

a student’s academic confidence and believe in their ability to work hard and achieve academic


When Asians are broken up into their sub-groups, Korean, Chinese, Indian, etc, economically

there is a correlation with the level of wealth and student’s performance. Rick Sperling, discusses

this further in his article, “Chinese and South Korean descent, outperform other subgroups, such

as those who trace their ancestry to places such as Vietnam or Laos,” (Sperling par 8). This

indicates there is even an achievement gap in the “Educationally Superior Minority.” When the

Asian Achievement Gap is cross-referenced with different Asian’s median household income,

the highest academically performing Asians come from homes who make the most money. A

Pew Research study in 2012 sampled 3,511 Asians across the US measuring median income and

post-secondary education. Chinese Americans’ median incomes were $65,050 and their

post-secondary attendance was over 51%, while Vietnamese’s median income was $53,400 and

their post-secondary attendance was 26%, (“The Rise of Asian Americans” par 62). This shows

their achievement correlates with the wealth of their ethnicity. This goes against the stereotype

all Asians are naturally educationally gifted. This actually disproves the “model minority,”

theory because, in reality, the Asian students who have middle and upper-class incomes are

performing well, while their low-income Asian peers are at a disadvantage, and still feel afraid to

speak up. This is because their race’s stereotype is making it hard to ask for help. A student’s

academic identity should be individualized and not have anything to do with racial stereotypes.

All students are different and need different levels of academic support, regardless of this all

students should feel confident and value their schooling and feel supported by their teachers.

Part IV: Discussion and Conclusion

The failing education system perpetuates generational poverty and inequality between races.

Low income and minority students do not have the same academically enriching activities and

opportunities as high income and majority students. That is why academic identity should be the

next step in education reform and improving academic identities is the most effective way to

reform education and diminish the achievement gap.

Larger implications/going forward:

The American Education System is not designed for all students to thrive and it needs to be

addressed in a productive way. There is a reason minority and low-income students are

underperforming. Whether intentional or not, institutionalized racism exists in the American

Public Education System. It has been 65 years since the historic Brown v. Board of Education

Case, abolishing school segregation, but how much has changed? Yes, schools are desegregated,

but we are letting thousands of minority and low- income students receive sub-par education

both minority and low-income students deserve educational justice.

Low Socioeconomic students are still underperforming and are victims of their underfunded

schools. These student’s only way out of generational poverty is through higher education. Yet,

they do not see the value of education, they will not pursue a post-secondary path. If this

generation of low-income students have teachers implementing a curriculum based around

uplifting their student's academic identities these kids will have the skills to break generational

poverty and change their lives exponentially.

What the research suggests:

The research suggests academic identity can solve both racial and socioeconomic achievement

gaps. Reshaping these student’s academic identities improves their attitude towards education

and their overall academic performance.

There is not a surplus of data about academic identity because it is a relatively new solution for

the achievement gap. Despite this, the solid research that can be found about academic identity

should be used as a solution for the achievement gap in all American Schools including Public,

Private, and Charter. The research above only addresses American Public School’s issues and

excludes Charter and Private Schools. The results from these school models would be different

from public schools because these schools have different funding and standards. Regardless,

based on the research above, private and charter schools could also benefit from improving their

students' academic identities.

Further research and action need to be taken. More educators need to focus on academic identity

and less on teaching for test scores. The research strongly demonstrates that by improving a

student’s academic identity, a school’s overall productivity improves. Going forward to schools

and society as a whole would benefit from focusing on uplifting minority and low-income

students academic identities.

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