Campus & Community

University to address ‘achievement gap’ issue

4 min read

Initiative will synthesize research

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] into law in 1965, one of the biggest education challenges facing the nation was the difference in the quality of education provided to children from white households and those from nonwhite households. Today, the racial gap persists. How much of the gap is due to schooling, as opposed to home life and opportunities outside of school, is a topic of ongoing research. What seems clear is that some children have access to more and better academic experiences than others and that these differences correlate strongly with race and class.

Please check the HGSE events listing page for updates and more details about each lecture.

This “achievement gap,” as it is often called, has long-term implications for the nation. Cognitive skills have increased rapidly in economic value, while nonwhites are a fast-growing portion of the U.S. population and workforce. At some point during the present century, nonwhites will become the majority. The future of the nation rests heavily on how much it can raise achievement levels for all children, especially those from racial-, ethnic-, and social-class groups that currently rank behind whites and some Asians in academic achievement.

To address this problem, Harvard University has organized the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI). Begun by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and now led by economist Ronald Ferguson, Kennedy Lecturer of Public Policy at the School of Government, the initiative is an interdisciplinary effort to help understand and narrow the achievement gap.

Faculty participants in the AGI currently include professors from HGSE and the Kennedy School as well as members of Harvard College’s government, Afro-American studies, economics, psychology, and sociology departments.

During the month of May the HGSE will host a special Askwith Education Forum series titled “Closing the Nation’s Racial Achievement Gaps: What We Know and Still Need to Learn.” Organized by the AGI, this series of forums begins with “Race, Culture, and K-12 Achievement Gaps” on May 5 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Gutman Conference Center.

The forums are part of an AGI effort to publicize research undertaken independently by faculty affiliates; and AGI will also organize new research, both theoretical and applied. The research is in collaboration with local, state, and national education organizations as well as think tanks and school districts throughout the nation.

Popular discourse among national leaders has sometimes assumed that some black and Latino youth are embedded in a culture that is oppositional to achievement and that this culture is a major impediment to narrowing the nation’s achievement gaps. The evening’s speakers present a more complex picture.

Ferguson will speak about research that suggests that there are cultural challenges to overcome, but that they differ from the problem of a simply oppositional culture. Based on his survey research and interventions in public schools, he will suggest some ways that parenting and teaching can either exacerbate or help narrow gaps.

Drawing on her forthcoming book, Assistant Professor of Sociology Prudence Carter will address how the intersecting identities of race, ethnicity, class, and gender influence culture and achievement among African-American and Latino youths – and the phenomenon known as “acting white.”

Mica Pollock, assistant professor at HGSE, will address how youths cope with inequality and diversity as a routine part of their daily lives, including in disputes over fairness in school settings. Drawing in part from her book, “Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School,” she will discuss when to talk in racial terms about people and patterns in schools.

Additional forum discussions in the series include:

“Racial Gaps in College Access and Success,” May 10, 6 to 7:30 p.m., Gutman Conference Center


  • Christopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government
  • Bridget Terry Long, associate professor of education, HGSE
  • Vivian Shuh Ming Louie, assistant professor of education, HGSE“Racial Gaps in School Readiness: The Importance of Early Childhood,” May 12, 6 to 7:30 p.m., Gutman Conference Center


  • Roland Fryer, Economics Department, Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • David Grissmer, senior management scientist, Rand Corporation
  • Kathleen McCartney, professor of education and academic dean, HGSE