What Do We Really Know About “Opportunity Gaps”?


Closely related to the achievement gap and the  learning gap, the term opportunity gap refers to the ways in which race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, English language proficiency, individual and community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and overall attainment for certain groups of students. All of these can negatively influence self-esteem, self-regulation, motivation, and weigh greatly on life trajectory of children, and their family’s life circumstance.

Generally speaking, opportunity gap refers to inputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities—while achievement gap refers to outputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results and benefits. Learning gap refers to relative performance of individual students—i.e., the disparity between what a student has actually learned and what students are expected to learn at a particular age or grade level.

Opportunity gaps can take a wide variety of forms. Outlined here are only a few of the numerous factors that can give rise to opportunity gaps:

  • Students from lower-income homes may not have the financial resources that give students from higher-income homes an advantage when it comes to performing well in school, scoring high on standardized tests, and aspiring to and succeeding in college. Poor nutrition, a lack of healthcare, or an inability to pay for tutoring, test-preparation services, and/or college tuition (in addition to a fear of taking on student-loan debt) may all contribute to lower educational achievement and attainment.
  • Some groups of students may be subject to prejudice or bias that denies them equal and equitable access to learning opportunities. For example, students of color tend to be disproportionately represented in lower-level courses and special-education programs, and their academic achievement, graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates are typically lower than those of their white peers.
  • Students raised by parents who have not earned a college degree or who may not value postsecondary education may also lack the capacity for offering the encouragement or many supports available to other students. Students may not be equally encouraged to take college-preparatory courses in high school. Educators are held partially responsible to refer ALL students who indicate qualifying academic performance. Some parents may struggle with the  college-admissions and financial-aid process, as well…another responsibility of schools to inform, build capacity and guide families through the complexities of navigating the educational system at all levels.
  • Students raised in a non-English-speaking home or culture could experience limited educational opportunities if their acquisition of English proficiency, fluency, and literacy is delayed. If classes are taught exclusively in English,  educational materials are printed only in English, or  educational enrichment programs are conducted in English or require English fluency, students who are learning or struggling with the language may be denied full participation in these opportunities. Why not present materials to ALL students in a multilingual format anyway? It encourages second language acquisition and bilingual literacy is an attractive asset in the college and career recruitment processes.
  • Economically disadvantaged schools and communities may suffer from less-effective teaching staff, overcrowded schools, dilapidated or poorly maintained facilities, and inadequate educational resources, programs, and opportunities—all of which can contribute to lower educational performance.
  • Small schools located in geographically isolated rural areas may not be able to offer the same diversity of educational opportunities—such as multiple world-language courses or extra-curricular program activities like science fairs, debate competitions, robotics clubs, or theatrical performances, for example—that are available to students in larger schools. Rural students may also have less access to libraries, cultural institutions, museums, internships, and other learning opportunities because either they don’t exist, they are too far away, or there is no free or low-cost public transportation.
  • A lack of internet connectivity, computers, and new learning technologies in rural schools, inner-city schools, and lower-income communities can place students at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring technological skills, taking computer-based tests, or accessing learning opportunities online.

There are many, many more related examples in which achievement is severely compromised by lack of opportunity, and it behooves educators to be mindful of the influence that opportunity has on student performance. Additionally, we should make every effort to design classroom instruction appropriately responsive to your population and demographics. Get to know your families and the community. We can ensure equitable student access and increased opportunity to all supplemental learning resources that may not be available at home or in the community.

It’s all about access and opportunity! Systemic, fully collaborative education reform can be a very slow and complex process. Due to resistance, implementing transformative changes is often difficult and progress equally slow. However,  slow progress is better than no progress at all. So, starting from today, every classroom teacher can be strategically proactive to mitigate the impact that opportunity gaps have on achievement within that setting. Promote, model and ensure fairness by committing to equity pedagogy, a mindful, justice-oriented ideology, to demonstrate a conscious awareness that:

Equity is the process; Equality is the outcome!

Teachers, how can we help you to perform your jobs more effectively and collaboratively? We do need to talk!




3 thoughts on “What Do We Really Know About “Opportunity Gaps”?

  1. Great post! Love how opportunity gap was distinguished from achievement gap! It definitely takes a village to address these issues to infuse equity into the educational process! Sometimes communities in need both urban and rural have access to the fewest resources. They are full of potentials but lack “pathways”. Thanks for sharing!


    1. You are absolutely on target, when you acknowledge the potential that remains untapped and therefore stifling countless students and families. If only we could open more opportunities that encourage all to unlock, unleash and realize their full potential!
      Imagine, the missing link between authentic educational equity and equality is opportunity! MLK: ” Why we can’t wait!”


      1. Yes! We have to design and implement real exit strategies that help people end generational cycles of poverty and isolation. And community members need to be at the table to help design the solutions. Sadly, there are lots of industries that profit off of poverty and not really invested in seeing it end. Poor people don’t need more help staying poor. They need an exit strategy from poverty that addresses systemic issues. A you said, “Why we can’t wait.”


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