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Racial-Ethnic Achievement Gaps and Early Social-Emotional Well-Being

By Derik Suria

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

What is the academic achievement gap & why is it important?

The United States has had a long and persistent history of racial and ethnic segregation. A continued mode of separation that drove, and continues to drive, racial and ethnic socioeconomic disparities is education. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education and deemed racial segregation in education unconstitutional, many attempts have been made to reduce racial-ethnic disparities in education—particularly by tracking this progress through academic achievement. Academic achievement is often measured by standardized test results and average scores throughout multiple subject areas like mathematics, reading, and writing.

While attempts have been made to address the academic achievement gap, these efforts have resulted in slow, ineffective, and most importantly, uneven progress. This uneven progress is exacerbated by inequitable school financing which disproportionately affects minority and low-income students. A longitudinal study tracking gaps in racial and ethnic academic achievement conducted by The Stanford Educational Opportunity Monitoring Project highlights the unstable nature of progress toward educational equity. For instance, while white-Black and white-Hispanic academic achievement gaps have shrunk by 30-40% since the 1970s, there is still an average of 0.5-0.9 standard deviations between groups. More generally, while the overall gap has been shrinking, gaps in some states in the Upper Midwest have been increasing. These findings demonstrate that the achievement gap remains mostly unaddressed.

How Social-Emotional Learning can narrow the gap

When considering the causes of the academic achievement gap, socioeconomic status naturally comes to mind. A study by Kuheld et al. notes that when looking at the causes of the academic achievement gap there are many confounding variables—notably socioeconomic status. Thus, to what extent is academic achievement dictated by socioeconomic status? Through data analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Kindergarten Cohort 1998-1999), the study by Kuheld et al. showed that over 85% of academic achievement disparities were predicted by the socioeconomic status of the family. In doing so, this study highlighted the importance of closing the earnings gap on creating an optimal learning climate for children to thrive. Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is an important factor in helping children regulate themselves more effectively.

While social-emotional learning is an important skill all-around, it is even more important during a child’s early years. In a study by Denham et al. examining the relationship between social-emotional skills and early school skills, researchers found that SEL had specific impacts that translate to academic outcomes. In particular, SEL had a measured impact on classroom adjustment which includes intangible factors like motivation to learn, social skills, active participation, collaboration with others, and enjoying school. These intangible skills were also extended to self-regulation, which was equally important for class adjustment and academic achievement. In terms of academic readiness, SEL helped children develop mastery of basic skills like maths, literacy, and general knowledge. By improving children's abilities to regulate emotion, attention, and behavior, SEL creates an optimal learning environment for progress. In contrast, children struggling to process and deal with negative emotions inhibit their ability to focus on learning and maintain a positive attitude towards schooling.

At Effective to Great Education, we recognize that minority students are still persistently disadvantaged by historically racist schooling policies. Through a culturally responsive, trauma-informed SEL-based curriculum, we aim to provide equitable resources to increase social awareness and classroom adjustment. In doing so, we hope to equip students with SEL tools to regulate their emotions, adjust to a classroom environment, and maintain a consistent sense of motivation to reduce racial disparities in academic achievement.

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