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Mend the Gap Between Rich and Poor in School Achievement

We know how to reduce the school achievement gap, but we do the opposite.

Wikipedia Commons, free media
Source: Wikipedia Commons, free media

Our compulsory public school system is supposed to be “the great equalizer.” By providing the same schooling to everyone, it is supposed to promote equal opportunities for young people regardless of their socioeconomic background. In fact, however, the system has never been a great equalizer, and research indicates that it is even much less an equalizer today than it was in the past.

A few years ago, Sean Reardon (2012) of Stanford University published an analysis of the findings of many studies showing, over all, that the gap in achievement test scores between students from the richest 10% of families and the poorest 10% grew by 40 to 50 percent between the mid 1970s and the early 2000s.. The gap exists at all grade levels, but is much larger in the later years of schooling than in the early years. By the middle of high school, the average test scores for students from the bottom 10% in income are three to six grade levels (depending on the type of test) below those of students from the top 10% in income.

Here I’ll describe some unsuccessful and successful attempts to reduce the achievement gap, and then I'll explain why I think public support for Self-Directed Education would be a great way to reduce or even eliminate the gap.

Some failed attempts to reduce the gap

More money spent on schooling hasn’t solved the problem.

Over the past few decades, federal, state, and local governments have increased greatly their spending for public education and have decreased the spending gap between poor and rich school districts. Over those same decades, the achievement gap has increased. Indeed, some research indicates that the average gap between rich and poor who are attending the same school, even in wealthy districts, is nearly as great as that between rich and poor who are attending different schools (Deruy, 2016; Tucker, 2007; Schmidt et al., 2015).

Reducing class size hasn’t solved the problem.

One might think that with smaller classes teachers would give more individual attention to those students who need the most help, which would reduce the gap. However, research to date shows little or no relationship of class size either to overall student achievement or to the size of the gap between rich and poor (e.g. Hoxby, 2000; Cho et al, 2012). In fact, those few studies that do show increased achievement for smaller classes generally reveal that rich students benefit more than do poor ones (Jackson & Page, 2013; Li & Konstantopoulos, 2017). Perhaps reduced class size leads teachers to spend even more time with the high achieving students, while still neglecting the needier ones.

More pressure, drill, testing, and standardization hasn't solved the problem.

The “No Child Left Behind” act and, more recently, the “Every Child Succeeds” act were designed, in part, to reduce the achievement gap. These programs, in theory, would reduce the differences among schools and among teachers in how they taught and would ensure that all students are subject to essentially the same curriculum and experience the same pressures to succeed in school. However, over the period that these programs have been in effect, the gap has increased.

Elsewhere (here), I have explained why this result should have been predictable. Many research studies have shown that high pressure improves performance for those who are already skilled at a task and worsens performance for those who aren’t skilled. The best way to learn something new is to learn it in a playful, non-stressful environment. If economically poor students start school knowing less of what is taught in schools than do rich ones, then high pressure would decrease their scores and increase those of the rich. {For much more on this idea, see here.) Moreover, standardization in teaching and testing reduces the opportunity for teachers to respond differently to the needs of different students, so it would likely result in neglect of the real needs of economically poor students.

Starting academic training at younger ages hasn’t solved the problem.

Another failed approach to reducing the achievement gap has been to start teaching academic skills earlier—in kindergarten and even in pre-kindergarten. As I have documented elsewhere (here), these programs have generally produced short-term benefits, if benefits are measured as improved test scores in first grade, but have produced long-term harm, as measured by academic test scores and social skills assessments in later years. The early learning promoted by academic training in preschool and kindergarten is apparently shallow and not founded on intellectual understanding, so it interferes with deeper learning of literary and mathematical skills later on (for more on this, see here).

The gap decreases when “school climate” improves

Another approach to school reform--quite opposite to the pressure, drill, and standardization approach—is that of improving “school climate.” “Climate” here refers to the attitudes that permeate a school’s culture. A positive climate is one where teachers are warm, supportive, trustful, and respectful toward students as unique individuals and where students feel supported, empowered, and good about their school and the people in it.

Recently, Ruth Berkowitz and her colleagues (2017) published a review of research linking school climate to academic achievement. The review showed, over all, that improved climate correlated with increased academic achievement and, in at least some of the studies, with a decline in the achievement gap.

Apparently, one reason for the achievement gap is that rich students tend to believe they “belong” at school and poor students tend to believe they don’t. A concerted effort by teachers and other staff to show that everyone belongs—that everyone is respected, cared for, and welcome—therefore tends to increase the participation, and hence the achievement, of economically poor students more than it does that of wealthier students, thereby reducing the gap.

Closely related to research on school climate is research assessing the value of “inquiry-based teaching.” This is a style of teaching that is less top-down than what usually occurs in schools. It is aimed at bringing students’ own questions to the forefront and taking students’—all students’--ideas seriously. When done well, it engages all students, including those who would otherwise be the most disengaged. Several studies have indicated that this style of teaching helps previously poor performers improve even more than it helps previously high performers, and thereby reduces the achievement gap (Marshall & Alston, 2014; Dickinson, 2016).

A one-year experiment in Binghamton, NY, with remarkable results

A few years ago, David Sloan Wilson—an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University—conducted, along with colleagues, a remarkable educational experiment. They started a new public high school, in Binghamton, NY, that would enroll only the lowest-performing students (Wilson et al., 2011). Only those students entering 9th or 10th grade who had failed three or more courses during the previous school year were eligible. Of the 117 students who qualified, 56 were randomly assigned to the experimental school, called Regents Academy, and the remainder, comprising the control group, remained at Binghamton’s single public high school.

Wilson and his colleagues designed the school on the basis of principles derived from evolutionary theory and research, but, for our purposes, the design can be understood largely as an attempt to improve school climate. The innovations included group identity-building activities; assembly and council meetings involving students and staff together; a school constitution signed by all students and staff; an attempt by the principal and every teacher to interact personally and positively with every student every day; opportunities for artistic activities (which included a student-painted mural in the hall); inquiry-based teaching; and an emphasis on cooperation and mutual support in the classroom. In response to students’ requests, Friday afternoons were devoted to a Fun Club, in which students could pursue activities of their own choosing. Such activities, of course, reduced the total amount of time that could be spent directly on academic instruction; yet, the school produced remarkable academic results!

The Regents Academy students not only greatly outperformed the control group on the mandated New York state achievement tests at the end of the year, but performed on a par with the average for all students at Binghamton High School. At least by this measure, one year at Regents Academy wiped out years of deficit accumulated over prior school years. According to Wilson and his colleagues, the per-student cost of this program was only slightly greater than that for the regular Binghamton High School.

Yet, apparently for bureaucratic reasons having to do with teacher turnover, the program did not continue into a second year. [Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me. The history of public education is filled with innovations that were scrapped when they proved to be successful,]

Basic Books, with permission
Source: Basic Books, with permission

Why I believe that support for Self-Directed Education would be the ultimate gap reducer

There is a lesson here. The more rigid, authoritarian, and narrowly task-and test-driven the school program, the greater is the achievement gap between rich and poor. The more friendly, trusting, and empowering the program, the smaller is the gap.

I’ve heard people argue that Self-Directed Education—the kind of fully trustful, empowering, student-directed education that occurs at Sudbury model schools and Agile Learning Centers—might work for middle and upper class children, but would not work for children from poor families. That argument is premised on the assumption that kids from wealthier families have educationally rich environments at home and therefore don’t need coercive schooling, while poor kids don’t have such home environments and therefore need coercive schooling in order to learn. But I think that Self-Directed Education, supported by a school or learning center designed for such education, works especially well for poor kids, precisely because it provides the kinds of self-directed learning opportunities and support that wealthier kids often have at home.

So far, because there is no public financing for it, relatively few children from poor families are enrolled in schools for Self-Directed Education, and research comparing the effects of such education for poor versus wealthier children is lacking. But my bet is that such schools would greatly reduce and maybe even eliminate the achievement gap, at least to the degree that the gap is not the result of physical insults of poverty, such as malnutrition and lead poisoning. My observation is that kids from poor families are just as curious, just as motivated to learn about the world, and just as motivated to make a good life for themselves as are those from wealthy families. Like all kids, they hunger for the opportunity to take charge of their life and control their own learning; they just need the opportunity. They don't need coercion; they need an environment where they feel welcome, loved, and empowered, and where ample learning opportunities are freely available to all.

Wouldn’t it be great if some school system, somewhere, would conduct such an experiment? The per-student cost in a school for Self-Directed Education is generally much less than that for standard public schools, so this experiment would actually save public money. For much more on Self-Directed Education, see here.


And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post at the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.


See also: Free to Learn; the website of The Alliance for Self-Directed Education.; and follow me on Facebook.



Berkowitz, R., et al. (2017). A research synthesis of the associations between socioeconomic background, inequality, school climate, and academic achievement. Review of Educational Research, 87, 425-469.

Cho, H., et al. (2012). Do reductions in class size raise students’ test scores? Evidence from population variation in Minnesota’s elementary schools. Economics of Education Review, 31(3), 77–95.

Deruy, E. (2016). In wealthier school districts, students are farther apart. The Atlantic, May 3, 2016.

Dickinson, K. (2016). An exploratory study of inquiry-based learning to close the achievement gap in high school reading and writing. Doctoral dissertation, Seattle University. Available at ProQuest.

Hoxby, C. M. (2000). The effects of class size on student achievement: New evidence from population variation. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115, 1239–1285.

Jackson, E., & Page, M. E. (2013). Estimating the distributional effects of education reforms: A look at Project STAR. Economics of Education Review, 32, 92–103.

Li, W., & Konstantopoulos, S. (2017). Does class-size reduction close the achievement gap? Evidence from TIMSS 2011. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 28, 292-313.

Marshall, J., & Alston, D. (2014).Effective, sustained inquiry-based instruction promotes higher science proficiency among all groups: A 5-year analysis. Journal of Science Teacher Education 25, 807-821.

Reardon, S. F. (2012). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor. Community Investments, 24 (2), 19-39.

Schmidt, W. H., et al. (2015). The role of schooling in perpetuating educational inequality: An international perspective. Educational Researcher, 44, 371-386.

Tucker, M. (2017). Differences in performance within schools: Why so much greater than in outer countries? Education Week’s Blog, Sept. 6, 2017.

Wilson, D. S., et al, (2011). A program for at-risk high school students informed by evolutionary science. PLoS ONE, 6 #11.

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