On average, African-American and Latino students in the United States score lower on tests of academic achievement than their white counterparts. The troublesome data show up at every grade level and across the academic spectrum, from reading to math, and the disparities have frustrated educators for decades.

"We've spent more than half a century trying unsuccessfully to address the achievement gap," said Frank C. Worrell, PhD, at APA's 2011 Annual Convention. "I'm convinced that's because we're looking for one cause. And we need to look at many causes."

Worrell, a school psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke at a convention panel that examined new research on causes of the achievement gap—and potential solutions.

Other problems the speakers cited included:

  • A lack of diversity in schools. Schools are more segregated now than at any time in the past 40 years, said Sandra Graham, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Such lack of diversity is bad for students, she argued, as it can make students in the minority group feel more vulnerable. It can also breed cultural mistrust and a sense of discrimination that could influence the achievement gap, she suggested.
  • A failure to support immigrant students. These children come to the United States with a wide variety of educational, socioeconomic and other backgrounds and often with high goals, said Andrew Fuligni, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. When given access to resources and opportunities, they can fare better than American-born students. "When some of them are not doing well, it's not because of lack of aspiration, it's because of lack of opportunities," he said.
  • Too few leaders of color. "Until we get more African-American and Latino students through the academic pipeline, then our nation will fail to cultivate the human resources it needs for the 21st century," said A. Wade Boykin, PhD, of Howard University. Solving the problem will involve making classroom changes on many levels, he said, including improving students' confidence and belief that they can learn and succeed academically.
  • A failure to support ESL students. Students whose native language is not English often fall behind because they are expected to learn math, history and other subjects before they fully know the language, said Samuel Ortiz, PhD, of St. John's University. These students would be better served, he argued, if schools taught them content in their native language while gradually transitioning into English-language classes.

The education gap is actually similar to the health gap in the United States, pointed out Steven Quintana, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In some ways the two mirror each other—minorities in this country generally have poorer health outcomes than whites. But, he said, health disparities often result from minorities having less contact with health professionals, while educational disparities result from "problematic contact" that might be harder to change.