Forget Affirmative Action, Fix Our Education System Instead

Books showing the achievement gap in education

A few weeks prior, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Affirmative Action policies at two major universities. Practices at both Harvard and the University of North Carolina were labelled discriminatory, preventing merit-based efforts to be properly rewarded. Instead, opportunities were being offered to other minority students under Affirmative Action principles. While many were upset by the ruling, an equal number believed it was time for Affirmative Action to go. What was initially meant as a strategy to correct decades of racial education oppression no longer served its intended purpose. These developments are certainly newsworthy. However, they fail to highlight the much bigger problem involving the U.S. achievement gap in education.

students showing the achievement gap in education
Stop worrying about Affirmative Action and fix the achievement gap in education!

(It was time for Affirmative Action to go–read why in this Bold story.)

When it comes to statistics and trends in K-12 education in the U.S., reports aren’t favorable. Across the board, students are showing significant declines in math and reading, year after year. But at the same time, minority students and those in the lowest percentiles are suffering the most. These are the students who were supposed to be helped by initial Affirmative Action efforts. But neither Affirmative Action nor current educational efforts have made such an impact. Achievement gaps in education persist for these students, and alternatives to Affirmative Action are needed. In this regard, our focus should be on fixing K-12 education rather than arguing over Affirmative Action policies.

U.S. K-12 Education – A State of Major Decline

Periodically, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) evaluates the performance of 4th and 8th graders in the nation. They are assessed for both reading and math proficiency, and these figures are compared over time. The most recent scores reported were collected in the spring of 2022 with results tallied nationally and by state. Notably, for both 4th and 8th graders, average reading and math proficiency declined several points from the last year’s assessment. But this wasn’t the most concerning aspect of the report. Not only was there a decline, but all grades performed well under what was consider adept. Fourth graders were 21 points below grade-level proficiency in reading and 13 points below this in math. For 8th graders, the average score was 21 points below grade targets in reading and 25 points under math targets. Across the board, educational declines were evident for all K-12 students.

It might be easy to assume that the recent pandemic might be to blame for these growing achievement gaps in education. But this wouldn’t be accurate. For one, the federal government allotted an extra $130 billion for COVID-related educational needs across the nation. Secondly, the declines and growing achievement gaps in education have been occurring for years. Reading scores on average have now dropped to 1992 levels of proficiency while math is back to 1990 levels. While these decreased proficiency levels are for all student groups, some are affected more than others. This includes minority and low socioeconomic groups who struggle to an even greater extent. Based in this, it’s not surprising that Affirmative Action efforts failed to solve the problem. This is why alternatives to Affirmative Action are desperately needed.

a book in a library
Affirmative Action grew into an unwieldy beast. Know what’s an even bigger beast? Primary school education disparity.

Leaving Student Groups Behind

Let’s explore the impact that the current achievement gap in education is having on select student groups. While declines were seen universally in math and reading, some racial minority students were among the worst. African American students showed the largest declines of any racial groups in both math and reading. Hispanic students showed the second highest decreases in proficiency scores in math. And of all students, those who started in the 10th and 25th percentiles fell the most of any segment. Notably, these segments have a higher percentage of minority students overall. These are the student groups who most suffer from the achievement gap in education today. And it is also these groups who need alternatives to Affirmative Action to better meet their educational needs.

It is precisely these early educational disadvantages create notable disparities among minority student groups. For example, many aren’t aware that equal numbers of all races and genders choose to pursue STEM careers. However, of these groups, only 34% of African Americans complete a STEM degree compared to 58% of White students. Hispanic and female students also have lower completion percentages. While Affirmative Action might allow them entrance into a STEM university, it does little to promote success. The achievement gap in education here begins much earlier. Inherent barriers in K-12 exist that make it more challenging for diverse student groups to excel. This is where the alternatives to Affirmative Action need to be developed and employed. Not only would such alternatives improve opportunities for these student groups but would advance collective student performance overall.

Fixing the Achievement Gap in Education

students talking alternatives to Affirmative Action
Focusing on primary school students is one of the best alternatives to Affirmative Action.

For many, the knee-jerk reaction to solve the achievement gap in education is to throw more money at the issues. But this clearly isn’t working. Were you aware governments, including state and local ones, spend $1.3 trillion annually on public education? Likewise, the amount spent per student is now approximately $16,000 each year. This has steadily grown from $6,000 in 1970. And many assume a lack of teachers is the problem. But did you know that student-to-teacher ratios are now half of what they used to be? While equitable resource allocation may play a role in the achievement gap in education, it’s not the primary problem. Other alternatives to Affirmative Action and money supports are required to fix the problem.

Given the magnitude of the problem, there are no quick fixes when it comes to the achievement gap in education. Specifically, improving minority and underrepresented students’ opportunities requires a broad effort at many levels. For one, a more diverse workforce is required in K-12 schools. In fact, African American students with a single Black teacher have a 13% greater chance of attending college. Two Black teachers increases this percentage by 32%. At the same time, teacher and administrator training about implicit biases is needed. Similarly, shifting to educational strategies that are more student-centric and culturally responsive is key. And engaging community partners to help achieve these goals and expand resources should also be considered. The bottom line is that Affirmative Action cannot fix the nation’s K-12 education problems. Alternatives to Affirmative Action that focus on early education and student barriers across the board are essential. This is where our focus as a nation should be in our efforts to erase the achievement gap in education moving forward.


Affirmative Action is dying on the vine in education, but when will it hit the workplace? Read up on it in this Bold story.

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