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Philly’s Education Gap: A Quick Overview

This year, COVID-19 left schools grappling with how to safely educate children, whether to return to the classroom or teach virtually. It has become a familiar scene for parents: worrying about how behind their children are falling, wondering how to supplement their education, juggling keeping kids focused while working at home, or struggling to even provide at-home guidance while they themselves must attend work in person.

For many Philadelphia families, fighting for their kids to achieve national standards is a familiar problem. While historically education was seen as “the great equalizer,” bringing to all participants skills to traverse socioeconomic statuses, U.S. students score vastly differently on standardized tests and in classes when analyzed on the basis of race or economic background [1]. This disparity creates what has become known as the “education gap,” known also as the “achievement gap” or “opportunity gap.”

In Philadelphia compared to the rest of the nation, this gap is especially wide. According to the Philly-based nonprofit Research for Action, Pennsylvania ranked 48thout of the 50 states on their opportunity score for high schoolers of color [2]. For the city of Philadelphia over the past few years, achievement levels are just as disappointing. For example, in 2017 while 79% of fourth graders nationally scored at basic level or above in math, only 49% of Philadelphia’s fourth graders scored basic or above. But how did other urban areas do? The urban average was as high as 71%, so Philadelphia’s scores did not boost that average. The differences in reading scores and in other grade levels were similarly striking.

While Philadelphia’s scores as a whole were low in this report, gaps in racial achievements were also wide, increasing to 29 percentage points between whites and blacks in 2017. While white students’ scores are steadily improving, black students’ scores continue to plummet [3].

Racial inequality is highly correlated with the gaps in educational achievement. Explanations for this correlation have nothing to do with potential or intelligence and instead seem to be due to societal limitations. For example, African Americans are less likely to access early childhood education that may start their children on a scholastic path. For another example, black families are much more likely to experience separation due to economic hardship or incarceration [1]. Ultimately, the modern segregation that persists in our country keeps people of color bound to low-income neighborhoods with disadvantaged schools.

Socioeconomic status alone influences a child’s level of achievement to a degree. In Philadelphia, access to early childhood education increases early literacy levels, and lack of access results in lower scores in reading and math. Interestingly, parents pass a lot of knowledge onto their children by modeling behaviors and informal instruction; thus, degree of parental education also positively correlates with student achievement. Also, higher levels of parental education decrease the chances that the family is living in poverty [1].

kids of disadvantaged groups are not accomplishing as much due to any fault of their own but instead due to having fewer opportunities to achieve in the first place

But what happens when there are racial differences but no economic differences? Regrettably, it isn’t as easy as saying that people of color are more likely to be poor and therefore less likely to access additional educational resources. Racial differences in academic achievement still exist among wealthier families that supposedly can access the same quality of school and afford the same educational materials, drawing more attention to our societal differences in how members of each race experience the world. One hypothesis in the community of educational research proposes that people of color that come from higher socioeconomic status may experience extra pressure to act a certain way in a community of other middle-class people who are white, causing an extra burden that explains the lesser achievement. However, this idea has not yet been backed by reliable data and is still being studied [1].

Another interesting study connected the amount of disciplinary action with poor achievement. Unfortunately, young students of color are also more likely than their white classmates to endure disciplinary action such as school suspension or detention or restriction from extracurricular events [1]. The mere absence in school can lead to low academic motivation and performance. Since Pennsylvania relies on teacher recommendation for students to be enrolled in advanced-level classes or gifted programs, the disparity in disciplinary representation spills over and keeps more students of color from accessing courses that may advance them [2].

Researchers and educators have been trying to understand these differences in educational achievement with the hopes that one day we will be able to fix them. Although much remains to be understood about how these complex social issues contribute to the achievement gaps, a pattern has emerged in the research that inspires the use of the term “opportunity gap” instead of “achievement gap” or similar terms. The vast majority of analysis so far points to large, systemic issues as contributing factors to the gaps in test scores and grades between the races and levels of wealth. The term “opportunity gap” more accurately describes howkids of disadvantaged groups are not accomplishing as much due to any fault of their own but instead due to having fewer opportunities to achieve in the first place [1].


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any organization with which I am affiliated.


  1. Hung, Man et.al. Exploring Student Achievement Gaps in School Districts Across the United States. Education and Urban Society. 2020;52(2):175-193.

  2. Wolfman-Arent, Avi. Pa provides some of the worst opportunities for students of color, reports say. The Philadelphia Tribune. https://www.phillytrib.com/news/state_and_region/pa-provides-some-of-the-worst-opportunities-for-students-of-color-reports-say/article_611dddb6-380a-11ea-b6cd-f33353028ce8.html#/questions. Published January 15, 2020. Accessed October 22, 2020.

  3. NAEP results show Philadelphia still below average for big cities. The notebook. https://thenotebook.org/articles/2018/04/11/naep-results-show-philadelphia-near-the-bottom-of-big-cities/.Published May 14, 2018. Accessed October 22, 2020.

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