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5 Proven Practices that Help Close the Achievement Gap

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The National Education Association defines achievement gaps as “the differences in academic performance between groups of students of different backgrounds.” They explain that groups experiencing achievement gaps include racial and ethnic minorities, English language learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families. 

The achievement gap is not just a problem in your classroom and on your campus. It is a systemic challenge across the whole nation. Closing this gap has been the focus of many educators and researchers. In this post, we discuss 5 research-based strategies that will help close the gap on your campus among your own students.


Why is it important to close the gap?

Sharon Owyang, who has a Master of Science in Educational Leadership, said the gap grows as students progress through school. 

“The Achievement Gap is a challenge for educators as they review the data from grade-level test scores, school district, and state test scores,” Owyang said. It “tends to widen as the students progress through the grades; it becomes harder to catch up.  Learning may be marginalized with poor attendance, socio-economic status, and language disabilities.”(Staff, 2019)

Why Does the Gap Exist?

Less Rigorous Curriculum

What causes the continuing minority achievement gap in mathematics and other content areas? Barton (2003) has shown that minority students face numerous academic barriers to achievement, both in the classroom and outside of school. One factor that shows up in his research is that minority students as a group experience a less rigorous curriculum. Lower expectations for these students often preclude the opportunity for them to take more rigorous courses because of inadequate prior preparation.

Fewer Opportunities to Learn

Opportunity to learn remains one of the best predictors of student learning (NRC, 2001). Differentials in learning outcomes, therefore, are not a result of inclusion in any demographic group, but rather are significantly a function of disparities in opportunities that different groups of learners have with respect to access to grade-level (or more advanced) curriculum, teacher expectations for students and beliefs about their potential for success, exposure to effective or culturally relevant instructional strategies, and the instructional supports provided for students (Flores, 2007). 


5 Proven Practices that Help Close the Achievement Gap


  • Relationships Matter

It will come as no surprise to any educator who has been a teacher for a least a couple of years that having solid and sincere relationships with students is a serious game-changer in closing the achievement gap. The old adage is still true. Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Some students are so willing to demonstrate this truth they will sabotage their own education in your class, making comments like, “Well, I’m not going to do any work for you.” 

According to Hanover Research, which summarizes the empirical research on school-based strategies for narrowing achievement gaps, found that achievement gap outcomes are improved by quality teacher-student relationships where students perceive their teachers as supportive, caring, sensitive and responsive to their needs, and respectful of their cultural or linguistic differences. (Hanover, 2017)

  • Seek Cultural Relevance

Preservice training has not done enough to help prospective teachers deal with multicultural classrooms. Of the 48 teacher candidates studied in Holloway’s research, only five could even describe “equity.” She found that immersing preservice teachers in the study of equity helps most of them identify inequities and builds awareness of classroom gender separation. (Holloway, 2004)

According to the National Education Association, to close the achievement gap between students, educators must consider students’ diversity to be an asset instead of a liability. This means teachers should consider all the qualities of their students as potential strengths that can be used for building academic and social capacities instead of the other way around. For instance, educators should celebrate the use of different languages and dialects of English, understanding that students have the ability to see and think from multiple perspective lenses. 

Educators should also be sensitive to students’ home cultures; In order to be sensitive to home culture, one must be familiar with the culture of the individual. Beyond collecting academic data on our students, learn about who they really are and where their strengths lie. By making fewer assumptions about student performance and behavior, we counteract implicit bias and open more pathways for classroom success.

  • Leverage Technology

According to Hudson, author of “Six Strategies to Reach, Teach, and Close Math Gaps”, Leveraging technology programs helps all students, especially populations that can be highly mobile, depending on their family circumstances. In addition, some students might enter the U.S. school system at any grade and any time during the year. Other students enter classrooms with limited experience in formal school settings as well as with inadequate understanding or prior knowledge of grade-level math skills. (Hudson, 2017)

Technology-based programs that assess and adapt to the proficiency level of each student can more formatively support learning and thereby raise academic achievement of all students, regardless of academic or economic background. For schools that are trying to meet the needs of all ELLs, SPED, 504, economically disadvantaged, or any student with limited time and resources, an investment in technology, particularly adaptive technology, can enable a more personalized blended learning model that meets the needs of all students.(Hudson, 2017)

  • Connect with students’ Families(NEA)

The NEA found that schools and educators that develop relationships with parents are more successful at closing the achievement gap. They explain that developing relationships with students’ parents can increase parental involvement in our student’s educational experiences. By including parents in the conversation, they become reliable partners for student success. 

You’ve heard the saying, “It takes a community to raise a child.” Within that community, we mustn’t leave out guardians, for they have the biggest stake and investment in their child.

Depending on what level of students you teach, connecting with families can look drastically different. Parents tend to become less involved as students move from elementary to middle school to high school. Find the right balance of frequency and depth of communication with your students’ group of parents. Just be sure to be consistent.

Ways you might consider building connections with parents include updating parents on students’ successes in class regarding assignments or behaviors, inviting parents to school events, and/or sending home parent communications.

  • Access to grade-level curriculum

According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), too many students—especially those who are poor, nonnative speakers of English, disabled, or members of racial or ethnic minority groups—are victims of low expectations for achievement in mathematics. 

For example, traditional tracking practices have consistently disadvantaged groups of students by relegating them to low-level mathematics classes, where they repeat work with computational procedures year after year, fall further and (click) further behind their peers in grade-level courses, and are not exposed to (click) significant mathematical substance or the types of cognitively demanding tasks that lead to higher achievement  (Boaler, Wiliam, & Brown, 2000).

As an educator, you might not have the power to change student schedules to be exposed to more advanced content, but you do have the power to challenge each student by making your content more rigorous and avoiding the tendency to dilute content to match low expectations placed on the student.



The achievement gap was not created overnight nor can we expect it to disappear as quickly. However, there are some proven practices, if implemented with consistency and fidelity, that can begin to close the distance between student populations who are traditionally more successful and student groups who have struggled for years or even generations.


Barton, P. (2003). Parsing the achievement gap. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Boaler, J., Wiliam, D., & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ experiences of ability grouping—disaffection, polarisation, and the construction of failure. British Educational Research Journal,26(5), 631–648.

Flores, Alfinio. (2007). Examining disparities in mathematics education: Achievement gap or opportunity gap? The High School Journal, 91(1), 29–42.

Flores, Alfinio. (2007). Examining disparities in mathematics education: Achievement gap or opportunity gap? The High School Journal, 91(1), 29–42.

Holloway, J. (2004, February 1). Closing the Minority Achievement Gap in Math. Ascd. 

Hudson, T. (2017). Six Strategies to Reach, Teach, and Close Math Gaps. 


National Research Council (NRC). (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. J. Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, & B. Findell (Eds.). Mathematics Learning Study Committee, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


“School-based Strategies for Narrowing the Achievement Gap.” Hanover Research, 2017).

Staff, by: F. P. (2019, June 25). What is the teacher’s role in closing the Achievement Gap: Professional development. Fresno Pacific University.

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