Closely related to achievement gap and learning gap, the term opportunity gap refers to the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students.
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—too many to comprehensively describe here. The following, however, are a few representative factors that can give rise to opportunity gaps:
- Students from lower-income households may not have the financial resources that give students from higher-income households an advantage when it comes to performing well in school, scoring high on standardized tests, and aspiring to and succeeding in college. Poor nutrition, health problems resulting from a lack of healthcare, or an inability to pay for preschool education, 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.
- Minority 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 lack the familial encouragement and support available to other students. These students may not be encouraged to take college-preparatory courses, for example, or their parents may struggle with the complexities of navigating the college-admissions and financial-aid process.
- Students raised in a non-English-speaking family or culture could experience limited educational opportunities if their acquisition of English proficiency, fluency, and literacy is delayed. If courses are taught exclusively in English, if educational materials are printed in English, or enriching educational programs are conducted in English or require English fluency, students who are learning or struggling with English may be denied full participation in these opportunities.
- Economically disadvantaged schools and communities may suffer from less-effective teaching, overcrowded schools, dilapidated facilities, and inadequate educational resources, programs, and opportunities—all of which can contribute to lower educational performance or attainment.
- 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 co-curricular programs 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 they do not 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 knowledge and learning opportunities online.