The problem of the academic achievement gap between African American students and their White counterparts is a matter of increased attention of various stakeholders. Underachievement is a result of a myriad of factors that can be grouped into personal, social, economic, school-related, and familial ones. At the same time, cultural identity is a crucial determinant of the academic performance of K-12 students. The literature review revealed that an inadequate curriculum is one of the major reasons for the emergence of the achievement gap. Thus, a curriculum change guided by an adequate framework is needed to help African American students develop their cultural identity.
Keywords: achievement gap, African American students, K-12, academic achievement, curriculum change, cultural identity.
Literature Review: Curriculum Change for African American Students
Modern education in the US faces a considerable problem of underachievement of African American students in comparison with their White counterparts. The problem spurred a large body of research on the matter, trying to understand the factors that affect the achievement of students in school. Some researchers believed that cultural and racial differences do not matter, as academic achievement is affected only by social, familial, school, and economic factors (Gilar et al., 2019). However, others found significant correlations between racial identity and academic achievement using rigorous research methods (Wang et al., 2020). Frontiers in education and curriculum development claim that the central reason for the underachievement of African American students is the inadequacy of current curriculums (Johnson, 2018; King, 2017). Students do not see themselves in literature and cannot relate to the experiences and facts discussed in classes. Thus, it appears that a curriculum change is needed to address the problem of the underachievement of African American students. The present paper offers a literature review on the problem of the achievement gap in American schools and how the problem can be addressed through curriculum change.
Factors Affecting Academic Achievement
The academic achievement of students in schools is a complicated matter affected by a myriad of factors. These factors can be grouped into social, economic, personal, familial, and school-related. Personal factors that affect academic achievement include the application of self-regulation strategies, learning strategies, and study techniques that had a direct impact on the level of achievement of K-12 students (Gilar et al., 2019). Motivation and attitude towards studies were also found to have a significant impact on the academic achievement of students (Preckel & Brunner, 2015). In particular, positive attitudes towards teachers, curriculum, and school, in general, are associated with improved achievements (Preckel & Brunner, 2015). Additionally, Castejón et al. (2016) concluded that overachieving students have a better appreciation of academic self-concept, personal self-concept, and learning goals. At the same time, overachieving students are or more honest, and emotionally stable than under-achieving students are (Castejón et al., 2016). Thus, it is clear that personal factors affect the academic achievement of students.
Familial influence is also crucial for improving the academic performance of students. Gilar et al. (2019) mention that expectations of family members and parental level of education have a direct impact on student’s academic achievement. At the same time, relationships with parents are also correlated with test results and grade point averages (Castejón et al., 2016). A study conducted by Chew (2018) also considered the level of family income as a considerable factor contributing to the academic achievement of students. This especially concerned families with income below the poverty level Chew (2018). Family composition also influences students’ academic performance, as students from single-parent families and multi-generational households were found to have lower grades than students from husband-and-wife families. In summary, the impact of families on the academic achievement of students is confirmed by numerous studies.
Racial and cultural differences are long considered an essential factor that contributes to the academic achievement of students. A meta-analysis conducted by Miller-Cotto and Byrnes (2016) found at least 46 articles published between 1996 and 2016 that discussed the matter, which makes it a popular subject among scholars. The results of research on the topic varied considerably, as this especially concerned families and cultural background was one of the central determinates of academic performance, while others believed that the effect was insignificant (Miller-Cotto & Byrnes, 2016). The meta-analysis concluded that the effect of racial and cultural identity was significant but small, as the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds was due to other covariates, such as economic status of families, self-efficacy problems, and school underfinancing Miller-Cotto & Byrnes, 2016). However, Johnson (2018) claims that statistics and researchers that conduct qualitative and quantitative studies are often disconnected from the real lives of African American students. Johnson (2018) believes that race and culture are crucial determinants of academic achievement, as there exists a significant achievement gap between minority students and their White counterparts. In summary, the level of importance of cultural identity for academic performance remains a matter of dispute.
Achievement Gap in K-12
The problem of the achievement gap between African American students and their White counterpart is a matter of heated discussion among scholars, policymakers, and educators. Anderson (2016) states that the US is in an educational crisis for African American students. In 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that 32% of White Americans performed at or above the proficient level at their 12th-grade exam, while only 7% of Americans could reach the proficient level (Anderson, 2016). This implies that African Americans are less likely to achieve sufficient ACT scores than any other racial group, which is a matter of concern (Anderson, 2016). African American students are also more likely to drop out of school than any other group of students (Bowman et al., 2018). Quantitative studies also confirmed that there were significant differences in test results of students of different cultural identities on all educational levels. For instance, the results of a study by Wang et al. (2020) revealed that African Americans had lower performance in both subjects in comparison with Caucasian students. The achievement gap is dangerous not only for African Americans but also for the well-being of the entire nation, as it spreads inequality.
Reasons for Achievement Gap
Numerous studies aimed at assessing the reasons for the gap in the academic achievements of students. A recent article by Bowman et al. (2018) addressed the problem systematically by assessing several factors simultaneously. The results of the research revealed that developmental differences, poverty, racism, curriculum, cultural differences, and insufficient teacher training leads to the appearance of the achievement gap (Bowman et al., 2018). The researchers suggest that all stakeholders need to change their perception of education. Everyone needs to understand that education starts before schools and goes beyond good test scores (Bowman et al., 2018). The policymakers need to make sure that the education system takes into consideration the learning experiences of non-White students and fosters partnerships between students, families, teachers, and school authorities (Bowman et al., 2018). At the same time, a curriculum change is required to accommodate the cultural and developmental differences of children (Bowman et al., 2018). Thus, the reasons for the achievement gap are diverse and need to be addressed systematically.
Racism and Poverty
One of the central suggestions made by Bowman et al. (2018) is that racism is one of the central factors contributing to the achievement gap. The researchers claim that generations of illegal and illegal deprivation of human rights have not gone unnoticed in the relationships between White and African American students (Bowman, 2018). At the same time, poverty has a tremendous impact on African American students, as this cultural group is more likely to have low-income levels (Anderson, 2016). Black students living in poverty are forced to deal with toxic stress, which includes violence, neglect, inconsistent care, and unloving adults (Bowman et al., 2018). This often results in intellectual development problems (Bowman et al., 2018). However, according to Johnson (2018), being poor and being black are not the same. Even though sometimes racial identity and the level of income are correlated, racial identity should not be viewed as a number of socio-economic factors (Johnson, 2018). Trying to describe a cultural group as a sum of demographic, social, and economic factors is ignoring the history of oppression of African Americans and blaming families for their financial problems, low level of education, and academic underperformance of their children (Johnson, 2018). Thus, poverty and racism are crucial factors that explain the achievement gap between Black and White students.
The concept of cultural identity is crucial for understanding the differences in the academic achievements of various racial groups. For instance, the majority of teachers and students see the variation of the English language that African Americans speak as “bad English” (Bowman et al., 2018). However, the development of this variation is rooted in the times of the transatlantic slave trade, when African slaves had to develop a common language for communication, as all of them spoke different languages (Bowman et al., 2018). Additionally, many parents and grandparents of African American students were taught to avoid disagreeing with authorities and express their opinions (Bowman et al., 2018). Thus, today’s students inherited this model of behavior; however, teachers often see the failure to express opinions as an academic problem (Bowman et al., 2018). African Americans often dislike their cultural identity and wish they were White (Anderson, 2015). Another issue is that the majority of teachers in public schools in the US are White females, while the majority of principals are white males (Johnson, 2018). This implies that neither teachers nor principals can appreciate the cultural differences of African American Students unless they undergo systematic training (Johnson, 2018). Thus, the cultural aspect is crucial for understanding the problem of the achievement gap.
Access to Education
The analysis of reasons for the emergence of the achievement gap would be incomplete without acknowledging the current disparities in access to education. According to Johnson (2018), school districts have failed to provide equal opportunities for African American students for a wide variety of reasons. Johnson (2018) states that the situation can be explained by the fact that school districts view the integration of African American students as a task that should be done rather than the foundation that should be built upon. Thus, access to high-quality education remains one factor contributing to the growth of the achievement gap.
The curriculum is another reason for the existence of the achievement gap. Frontiers in current curriculum development acknowledge that the current curriculum is predominantly White, which implies that history and literature are often overlooked (Childs, 2017; King, 2017; Johnson, 2018). However, what is important for Whites may not be important for African Americans, as they have other cultural identities. For instance, July 4, 1776, means less for African Americans than June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth (Rainone, 2020). At the same time, the history of African Americans is often misrepresented in the school curriculum. One of the most vivid cases of such misrepresentation was that Black slaves were pictured to be content with their position as slaves (King, 2017). While such racist descriptions are no longer present in the modern curriculum, the majority of textbooks are still written from the point of view of White people (Anderson, 2015). This often leads to the fact that teaching about black history is narrowed down to slavery and the civil rights movement (Childs, 2017). In other words, the modern curriculum uses Eurocentric ideologies to narrate the history of the United States (Childs, 2017).
Inadequate curriculum leads to at least two factors that contribute to the achievement gap between Black and White students in K-12. On the one hand, African American students cannot relate to the stories told in the history classes and writing studied during literature lessons (Dahir, 2019). This leads to a loss of interest in studies, which eventually leads to decreased academic performance (Dahir, 2019). On the other hand, African American students start to picture their cultural identity as a vulnerability or misfortune (Anderson, 2015). Even in the schools which are predominantly Black, teachers fail to take the opportunity to narrate the history of the US from the perspective of the lived experiences of African Americans. Thus, the current situation of the curriculum contributes to the achievement gap between African American students and their White counterparts.
Overview of Strategies for Addressing the Achievement Gap
Numerous strategies were developed to address the problem of the achievement gap among students. For instance, Bowman et al. (2018) provide a list of recommendations, including training of teachers in cultural literacy, working in partnerships with families, setting high expectations while acknowledging cultural differences, and planning for the prevention of difficult behavior. Hill (2020) explored the opinions of family members of minority students and concluded that staff should genuinely care for all students, utilize diverse instructional methods to meet the individual needs of students, and create healthy inclusive environments for the integration of cultural diversity. The importance of cultural diversity was also mentioned as a critical success factor by Wang et al. (2019). Dahir (2019) offered a strategic approach to the problem by promoting the pragmatic cultural model, which allows African Americans to develop their identities while attaining the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in mainstream society. In summary, there are multiple approaches to the problem of the achievement gap discussed among scholars, educators, and policymakers.
Paths to Curriculum Change
A curriculum change can intergrade all the strategies mentioned above and address the majority of reasons for the existence of the achievement gap. Even though progressive educators started to build cultural identity in African American students, their efforts were non-systematic, which led to inappropriate practices. For instance, teachers encouraged students to participate in mock slave auctions, play games, where some students acted like slaves and others like slave catchers, and make fun of slavery poems (King, 2017). Thus, it is crucial that the desire to teach black history and develop cultural identity is regulated by a structured curriculum to avoid inappropriate practices.
Anderson (2015) promoted five central principles of curriculum change to address the problem of the underachievement of African American students. First, it should promote sound racial identity, which helps to realize the strengths of the cultural background (Anderson, 2015). Second, the curriculum should help students to use critical consciousness and identify the issues of inequity (Anderson, 2015). Third, critical academic achievement is to be cultivated, as it helps to link academic performance with navigating and transforming society (Anderson, 2015). Fourth, the curriculum should develop a sense of collective responsibility (Anderson, 2015). Finally, the curriculum should teach activism and the ability to initiate and sustain changes in society (Anderson, 2015). Building a curriculum around these principles is expected to ensure that African Americans both thrive and transform the racist society.
Curriculum change is expected to concern history and language arts. Rainone (2020) claims that history classes are to demonstrate the history of African Americans beyond the civil rights movement and slavery context. In particular, history classes need to tell the history of Black Americans before they were enslaved to appreciate the depth of their cultural background (Rainone, 2020). The curriculum needs to help everyone understand that current differences in perception of the world, behavior, and language are a result of a long developmental process that is no worse than the development of White Americans (Johnson, 2018; Rainone, 2020). This cultural affirmation can be achieved in literature classes by introducing complex African American characters to which modern Black students can relate (Johnson, 2018). Additionally, the curriculum should acknowledge the linguistic differences between African Americans and their White counterparts to ensure adequate evaluation of all students (Rainone, 2020). In short, curriculum change needs to address a wide variety of issues.
Proposed Curriculum Theory
Curriculum change needs to be based on solid theory. Curriculum theory is a term for how a school decides what is to be taught to students. Beauchamp (1982) defines a theory as a set of constructs, definitions, and prepositions that explain a phenomenon systematically. The primary constructs in the curriculum theory are the subjects that should be taught, the methods that should be used for teaching the subjects, and the assessment strategies used for evaluating the outcomes (Beauchamp, 1982). The curriculum needs to be changed using an adequate theoretical framework to guide the process and evaluate the outcomes. There are four central theoretical approaches to curriculum, including academic, pragmatic, individualistic, and idealistic approaches (Beauchamp, 1982). One of the most appropriate theories for curriculum change is the pragmatic approach (Dahir, 2019). The primary advantage of the approach is that instead of focusing only on high-achieving students, pragmatists want all students to achieve the desired competencies (Enache & Crisan, 2016). This approach that while developing cultural competencies, students still have the skills to be successful in current realities and have the ability to change the current reality.
Currently, there exists a significant education gap between African American students and their white counterparts, which is a matter of heated discussion among policymakers, educators, and scholars. Numerous familial, social, economic, personal, and school-related factors affect the academic achievement of students. While the cultural background is also known to have a significant effect on academic performance, some scholars try to attribute these changes to the socio-economic disadvantages of African American students. However, such claims are often made by culturally incompetent researchers that utilize quantitative methods. There are various approaches that can help to address the problem of the achievement gap; however, curriculum change seems to be the most appropriate one. The change should help African American students relate to the stories told in literature classes and history lessons. Additionally, it should enable African Americans to transform today’s society.
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