The Cost of Low Student Achievement

Inequality and varied levels of academic achievement among America’s students based upon cultural, racial, socioeconomic, and gender lines has been status quo for over 100 years. Reports highlighting disparities in academic performance between certain student groups in our nation has become passé, and have only caused alarm in certain pockets within American society. But, with global competition and a slumping domestic economy, Americans may need to rethink the under-performance of students in housing projects, barrios, and rural country-sides.

A new report released in May of 2009 reveals the real economic impact of the so-called Achievement Gap and its effect on the national economy. The report reads:

The study, conducted by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, pointed to bleak disparities in test scores on four fronts: between black and Hispanic children and white children; between poor and wealthy students; between Americans and students abroad; and between students of similar backgrounds educated in different parts of the country. The report concluded that if those achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, or $3 billion to $5 billion more per day.

During prosperous economic times, it is easy for people outside of the mainstream to be marginalized and ignored. Time always reveals that all people are valuable and when a society forgets that universal fact, the fate of those in power always seems to come back to how they treated those without power. As the rest of the world becomes more competitive and the economic and political dominance of the past seems to fade away, our country has to turn to those communities who always thought that they were a permanent underclass to survive and grow. As the report cited above notes, by unlocking the intellectual potential of poor and minority children America stands to gain trillions of dollars into its economy and guarantee prosperity for American citizens for years to come.

As I conduct professional development around the country, I remind educators that the true power and fate our nation rests in the hands of our educators. To unlock the intellectual potential of a human being is akin to creating a new life. The only trait that separates humans from the animal kingdom is our ability to think at high levels. In fact, we witness humans turn to animalistic behavior when they do not develop intellectually. So, as I drive through dilapidated neighborhoods in Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles and other depressed regions of our nation, I do not see thugs and useless people walking the streets, I see potential, and the future leaders of our nation. What do you see? If more of my colleagues in our field, especially those who practice in communities like these, do not see through a new lens, we might all find ourselves in unfavorable positions. Joel Klein, the Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, stated it well when he said, “Schools can be the game changer. We can and should get very, very different (better) results with the same children and we can change the world”


  1. I just returned from hearing Dr. Muhammad at the MANS conference in Detroit. I cannot find the answer to this question–how did YOU become successful? You said you were poor, you are obviously a minority and I am thinking that Flint Public Schools were not on board with your philosophies when you went through school. So, what made a difference for you? If it is not the school, how do you reconcile that with what you are preaching? Don’t get me wrong–I am a second career new teacher (was a CPA and bank vice president at one time) and school culture is very disheartening. I concur with your approach but your personal story doesn’t seem to mesh with your theory that it is NOT the home that makes the biggest difference.

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