The Gap

The Gap - Massey University Emeritus Professor Ivan Snook


Ivan Snook

1.    Introduction:

Recent discussions about “open entry” for Maori to university and the proposed national standards for primary schools have focused attention once again on what is often called “the gap”—the wide variation in success rates for different groups gaining school- based qualifications. In New Zealand this has tended to focus on differences between Maori and Pakeha but it arises also in discussion of social class. ( Indeed, many argue that this is the same discussion: Maori perform less well because they are poor.)  When critics of the national standards pointed out that much of the variation in achievement is the result of social class differences the Minister called this “an excuse” for teacher failure. This debate (“social class” vs “teacher  accountability”) mirrors one which has been going on for many years in many countries but particularly in the United States where the gaps between African Americans/ Latinos and white Americans and between wealthy schools and poor schools are enormous.  

Although there are overlaps in basic positions, the dispute is often ideological rather than data based: between those who believe that most important distinctions between people (eg in health, life expectancy, crime, educational achievement) arise because of basic inequalities within the social system and those who put the blame on individuals for most inequalities (eg the poor smoke too much and waste their money on junk food) and on schools for educational failure. They even talk of “failing schools” rather than “failing students.”  In days gone by the debate often centred on questions of innate intelligence but we are now aware that talk of IQ does not resolve the issue but merely shifts it to another level. For, we are now aware that a person’s IQ is greatly dependant on what she has learned and  the debate between class background and teacher accountability breaks out again.  Because of this ideological bias each side tends to see the other as merely providing excuses. Those who account for achievement gaps by reference to home background are accused of providing an excuse for poor teaching and “failing schools.”  Those who stress the role of schools and teachers are, in turn, accused of providing an excuse for policy makers who fail to rectify the social conditions which cause many children to come to school poorly prepared physically (hungry, cold, tired, abused) and mentally (few books, few opportunities for travel, little mental stimulation).

2. Social Class and educational achievement:

The case presented by those who stress the role of social class is straightforward:

  • The “gap” is not restricted to one society (eg USA or NZ) or to one type of society (eg English-speaking) but is the case across the board. In every developed society those with good family resources out- perform those who come from poorer backgrounds.  According to a recent OECD volume: “Three broad conclusions emerge from research on student learning. The first and most solidly based finding is that the largest source of variation in student learning is attributable to differences in what students bring to school – their abilities and attitudes, and family and community” (OECD 2005 p 2). Despite its support for  “accountability based programmes” the US Office of Education, having reviewed the international evidence, admitted that it was clear that “Most participating countries do not differ significantly from the United States in terms of the strength of relationship between socioeconomic status and literacy in any subject.”  (Lemke et al, p 35).
  • When children attend schools which are also widely different in social class composition, the gaps between the achievement of schools mirror almost perfectly the gaps between the social classes which predominate in them. In New Zealand, these distinction are marked by decile levels: decile 10 schools are those attended predominantly by children of well off and/or highly educated parents. Decile 1 schools are those attended predominately by children whose parents are rather poor and/or less well educated. Independent schools which are not officially ranked are in fact high decile (usually decile 10). When one looks at more or less objective data (such as the old School Certificate and the new NCEA results), the school’s decile ranking correlates very closely with success rates in the examinations.
  • The inequalities are not restricted just to educational achievement. Within any society, including New Zealand, those who are poor are much less healthy, have lower life expectancy, lack adequate housing, are over represented in the prison population, and are more often the victims and the perpetrators of violence.  Educational inequality has to be seen in relation to all other forms of inequality.
  •  A recent large scale study took this a little further and asked: is the same true of societies? Are poor societies more likely to have bad health, low life expectancy, poor educational achievement and more violence? The answer is: only up to a point (average income $25,000). After that it evens out so that, for example, the incidence of social problems is no lower in the USA (average income $40,000) than in Cyprus (average income $25,000). The researchers show that in advanced societies, social problems are due to the spread of income. To give just one example:  USA, New Zealand, Portugal, Ireland (with high income inequality) have high infant mortality rates while  Japan, Sweden, Finland, Norway (low income inequality) have low infant mortality rates. The same picture is basically true of health, violence, life expectancy,teenage pregnancy, rates of imprisonment, abuse of alcohol and the use of illegal drugs.  Tackling each problem separately, the authors argue, is relatively ineffective for even when there is a solution (eg a medical cure or an educational breakthrough) the problems just appear in new ways (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2004) 
  • In New Zealand the achievement gap has widened as the society has become more unequal. It is common knowledge that the gap between wealthy and poor has widened enormously since the social revolutions of the   1980’s/1990’s. This has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in violence, child mortality, infectious diseases and a decline in overall school achievement due to “the long tail of poverty.”  In international tests of reading, for example, New Zealand has since the 1970’s steadily dropped from 1st to 6th to 13th, to 24th. (Tunmer & Prochnow, in press).
  • All this leads to the conclusion that, on their own, schools are relatively powerless to close the educational gap: closing the gap requires an emphasis on policies to remove the causes of poverty. To hold schools and teachers accountable for differences in the attainment of social groups is unfair and unreasonable.  


3       Schools can do it.


The case of the “teacher accountability” group is also quite straightforward:

  1. They deem it elitist or racist or both to hold that there are some children who, no matter what they do or how they are taught, can never learn. This is, of course, correct but we have to ask: is the social class explanation deterministic? No doubt there have been   teachers who use it as an excuse and adopt an attitude that “this lot are not worth it.” This once derived from a belief that a person’s intelligence is fixed by her genes. Now that we understand the social/cultural causes of both capacity and performance it is important not to allow a new form of determinism to arise. Without denying the facts about social class and culture, we must insist that:

(1)            The data on class differences are based on averages and do not tell us anything about  individuals.  On average men are able to run faster than women but many women run faster than many men. So too, many children from lower socio-economic situations out perform those from higher groups

(2)            Consequently, no individual person is pre-destined by class to any level of achievement. There are Nobel prize winners, great artists, and Olympic gold medallists who come from unlikely backgrounds. It is the job of the teacher to teach each child as well as she/he can and the responsibility of every school to do all it can to ensure that every child succeeds.  Class theory should never be used as an excuse for indifferent teaching or poorly administered schools. 

(3) The main argument of this group is that:  it is clearly true that schools/teachers can “beat the odd” and ensure that underprivileged students achieve at the highest level because it has been done: some schools/teachers have done it; therefore all schools/teachers can do it.   

Consequently, a major activity of the second group of campaigners is to find and analyse schools/ teachers/ principals who “defy the odds” and reduce or eliminate the gap.  There are indeed, in the USA, trusts and research groups dedicated to this task. These are some examples:

  • Heritage Foundation. They identified 21 high poverty schools with high achievement and attributed it to making ‘no excuses’ based on class or culture. However, only six of the schools were open “neighbourhood schools”
  • KIPP schools: these are schools which parents can choose. On average, the children are ahead of their peers on entry. They attend schools until 5pm each day, and have school on Saturday and three weeks summer school. Overall all the children spend 67% more time in class that children in other schools.  They manage it financially by gaining foundation grants and hiring only young teachers. 
  • Education Trust high flying schools. These constitute some 10% of poor schools. To be a high flying school children have to excel only in one grade, only in one subject and only in one year.  Some of these schools are selective, in some more than half are middle class and overall “Less than half of one percent of these high poverty and high minority schools were truly high flying, scoring well consistently.”  (Rothstein p 76).
  • 90/90/90 schools: These are schools with 90% receiving  free or subsidised lunches, 90% being from minorities and  90% achieving  “high academic standards.” In fact they were not high achieving : successful students scored only above the basic level.   One school principal who gained national attention for the success of his school failed to point out that a team of optometrists conducted a six year demonstration in the school, showing that children fitted with glasses achieved a 4.5 percentile point gain in reading ability. One author claims that “fifty percent or more of minority children and low income children have vision problems which interfere with their work.”  (Rothstein, p 37).

It follows that when reading the success stories, we keep an open mind, recalling the following:

  • there is often a degree of selectivity in the schools; if a school selects or attracts more motivated students the scores will be impressive.
  • caution is needed about the use of “free or subsidised lunches” as a measure of poverty. These indeed indicate low income but this is not enough on its own. Sometimes a school is attended by the children of graduate students at the local university who are indeed temporarily poor but well able to provide a rich intellectual environment for their children. Researchers need to concentrate on the “long term poor” with all the attendant social problems.
  • some of these schools highlight the gains in early grades but not the later slippages. The improvement of reading by the use of phonics is often marked in the early grades but vanishes further up the school.
  • care has to be taken with the use of test scores. It is all very well to say that 70% of the students have achieved at a basic level but there are different basic levels in different tests.  If the “bar” is set very low, almost all will clear it; if set to high almost none will.  In both cases there will be no gap.
  • almost all the successful schools have either carefully selected their teachers or given them substantial and on-going professional training. Thus, solutions to the ‘gap’ depend upon a large supply of very good teachers.
  • we must look beyond school tests to see if students who have made impressive test gains remain ahead (or up with the play)  in terms of entry to and success in tertiary study, access to and progress in careers and so on. The gaps we worry about are not just school achievement gaps but life-chance gaps.
  • we have to recognise that achieving on standardised tests is not all of education and may not indeed be the most important part.  After all, the business world often tells schools that affective characteristics are more important to them than cognitive ones: they want employees who are loyal, trustworthy, creative, flexible and able to work cooperatively. Standardised tests do not measure these traits and may indeed discourage them (If there is always only one right answer, what is there to be flexible or creative about?) 

A major problem in arguing that if some can do it all can do it, is that it presumes that what is done by excellent teachers in certain situations can be replicated by average and below average teachers but

  • In teaching as in most human activities participants conform to a bell curve or something like it. To argue that all teachers should be excellent is like saying that all runners should be able to do four minute miles. Nor are all situations identical: a small primary school in a small provincial town is very different from a large secondary school in an inner city situation.
  1. ·       Most of the claims about excellent teachers are circular. Researchers study test scores and identify teachers whose   students make exceptional progress. These are then called “excellent teachers.” But normally the researchers have no idea what it is that makes them excellent teachers and hence do not provide us with any guidance as to how ordinary teachers can be substantially improved.   

So Rothstein, who has made a sustained study of the question concludes “A careful examination of each claim that a particular school or practice has closed the race or social class achievement gap shows that the claim is unfounded.” (Rothstein, p 5)

However, this conclusion may be over stated.

4       Its Being Done

Chenoweth is a leading person in the Education Trust (USA), and she is very sensitive to the problems of accurately measuring the achievement of schools.  (Chenoweth, 2007). So she identified and visited 15 schools which satisfied the following criteria:

  • There was a predominant enrolment of  the poor and coloured;
  • There was high achievement or rapid improvement on standardised tests of attainment;
  • There were at least two years of data on achievement and/or higher rates of graduation from high school.
  • There was (a USA federal criterion) Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
  • There was open enrolment (to avoid the selectivity issue discussed above).


The results from these fifteen schools are impressive. Although the data are, by necessity, limited it seems that these fifteen schools do produce results which are outside the range that would be predicted on the basis of their composition Furthermore, many of the criticisms levelled at testing do not seem to be present here: students are not selected, there is little “teaching to the test”, and the curriculum is not narrowed. Rather, there is a broadly based attack on the problem. There is typically an impressive involvement of parents, the provision of homework centres and health facilities on campus, free “summer schools,” help in the classroom from teacher aides or parents and so on. The schools do not achieve results simply by adopting certain instructional procedures though they do focus on reading (often “across the curriculum” eg in science and social studies). Far from treating the social/cultural as irrelevant, these schools make it central and dedicate their energies to trying to compensate for the initial social disadvantage by replicating in and around the schools the services which middle class children already get in and around their homes.

It is also important to note that where scores are reported for different ethnic groups and/or the poor, the gaps usually remain even if they have been   narrowed. Finally, and significantly, the teachers are normally specially chosen: one school has some 350 applicants for each vacancy: “teachers want to work here,” said the principal.

5. Conclusion:

For a conclusion, I cannot do better than David Berliner, who heads a research unit dedicated to these problems and has written much about them: “People with strong faith in public schools are to be cherished and the same is true of each example of schools that have overcome enormous odds. The methods of those schools need to be studied, promoted and replicated so that more educators will be influenced by their success. But these successes should not be used as a cudgel to attack other educators and schools. And they should certainly never be used to excuse societal neglect of the very causes of the obstacles that extraordinary educators must overcome. It is poor policy indeed that erects huge barriers to the success of millions of students, cherry-picks and praises a few schools that appear to clear these barriers, and then blames the other schools for their failure to do so.” (Berliner, pp 5-6).

There must, in short, be no more excuses—from either side.

Ivan Snook is Emeritus Professor of Education at Massey University, a vice-chair of The Quality Public Education Coalition(QPEC) and author of the recent book, The Ethical Teacher.


Berliner, David C. (2009). Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved May 2009 from   http://epicpolicy.org/publication/poverty-and-potential.

Chenoweth,Karin. (2007). It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ministry of Education (2009). National Standards and Reporting to Parents. Wellington: NZ Government.

Lemke,M et al (2002). Outcomes of Learning:Results from the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds in Reading, Mathematics and Science Literacy. Washington: US Office of Education

OECD (2005). Teachers matter: Attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers. Overview. Paris: OECD. Retrieved 13 February 2009 from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/39/47/34990905.pd

Rothstein, Richard (2004). Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Economic Policy Institute, Teachers’College, Columbia University.


Tunmer, W. and J. Prochnow (in press). Cultural Relativism and Literacy Education: Explicit Teaching based on Specific Learning Needs is not Deficit Theory.


Wilkinson,R. and K.Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better. Allen Lane, an Imprint of Penguin Books, London.