Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Education: Psychology’s Contributions to Understanding and Reducing Disparities

Executive Summary

Pervasive ethnic and racial disparities in education follow a pattern in which African-American, American Indian, Latino and Southeast Asian groups underperform academically, relative to Caucasians and other Asian-Americans.

These educational disparities

  • mirror ethnic and racial disparities in socioeconomic status as well as health outcomes and healthcare; 

  • are evident early in childhood and persist through K-12 education; and

  • are reflected in test scores assessing academic achievement, such as reading and mathematics; percentages of those repeating one or more grades; dropout and graduation rates; proportions of students involved in gifted and talented programs; enrollment in higher education; as well as in behavioral markers of adjustment, including rates of being disciplined, suspended and expelled from schools.

Psychological science offers an understanding of educational disparities and strategies to redress them. Developmental psychologists have identified how differences in early childhood education and childcare are associated with academic performance and school readiness for ethnic and racial minority children prior to their entry into K-12 schools.

Psychological science examining second language acquisition has produced important findings about how linguistic minority children function, identifying the resources they need to perform commensurate with their cognitive abilities. Psychological theory informs our understanding of how immigration is related to educational disparities and explains why some Asian-American groups do well educationally compared to Latinos, despite both groups having large segments born outside the U.S. and a home language that is not English.

The organization of schools and how students are engaged in their learning are of critical importance for the educational achievement of students across ethnic and racial groups. Educational disparities are evident in markers of low academic performance and graduation rates, as well as the underrepresentation of students of color in gifted and talented educational programs, and psychological theory speaks to how to cultivate academic talent across the range of students in schools.

The psychology of individual and group differences can inform our understanding of the educational implications of important forms of human difference and exceptionality in educational systems.

Recommendations emerging from the task force’s work include:


  1. Advocate for wider access to high quality, early childhood education programs, which have been shown to help redress disparities associated with poverty in early childhood.
  2. Empower immigrant families to be informed consumers of the U.S. educational system by providing information about how their children can be successful in U.S. schools, including prerequisite skills for elementary, middle and high schools, as well as in higher education.
  3. Promote expansion of access to high-quality bilingual education that provides linguistically competent education to children.
  4. Educate the public and policymakers about the consequences of increasing ethnic and racial segregation to the educational experiences of ethnic and racial minority children.
  5. Promote allocating resources for increasing the capacity of teachers to deliver evidence-based, gap-closing instructional and learning strategies.

Educational Practice

  1. Identify and promote the cultural competencies of service providers in early childhood education.
  2. Train and consult with educators to capitalize on the generally high educational aspirations and valuing of education that immigrant students tend to bring with them to school.
  3. Educate prospective and in-service educators about supports to ethnic and racial minority boys and to inoculate children against stereotyping.
  4. Introduce prospective teachers and in-service teachers on how culture, identity and context interact, and interventions that have been demonstrated to increase achievement in ethnic and racial minority students.
  5. Build on the social, cultural, linguistic, experiential and intellectual assets that students from diverse backgrounds bring with them into classrooms.


  1. Adopt a broad definition of educational disparities to include those differences that (a) overlap with social class; (b) reflect bias and differential treatment in the educational system; and (c) are based on different responses to the educational system.
  2. Study the significant challenges faced by children of parents who hold undocumented immigrant status in the U.S.
  3. Identify psychological factors associated with immigrant status that have contributed to academic success as well as educational factors associated with school environments that have been successful at cultivating academic achievement on the part of immigrant children and youth.
  4. Examine the factors that contribute to the success of ethnic and racial minority students who participate in selective academic programs.
  5. Investigate the teacher-student dynamics that are associated with discipline and academic achievement gaps.