How Social Capital Can Help Close the Achievement Gap

BY VIVIAN LOUIE | Despite the gains of recent decades, educational inequality in the United States is high and has even widened across some indicators. How can we help young people actualize their promise? While there are many factors that influence academic success, here I want to focus on social capital, roughly defined as the information we obtain from the people we know, and understanding how to apply this information. An awareness of how social capital works across different sectors of society can help us find targeted levers with which to close the achievement gap. It is helpful to know, for instance, how parents plumb their connections to learn about or in some cases, are even told by strangers about good afterschool programs, and then use this information in the enrollment process. Educational leaders can marshal such knowledge to craft communication strategies and programs that fit the specific needs of parents.

My own work explores how social capital matters within immigrant and low-income populations. The children of immigrants[i] make up 23 percent – or 17.3 million — of the nation’s 74.69 million young people, and by 2020, will represent fully a third. I also focus on working-class and poor children, who need social capital, and yet have the toughest time getting it. This essay outlines a few differences and similarities in how these overlapping populations access and deploy social capital.

Achievement Gaps

“Achievement gaps” generally refer to disparities in grades, test scores, course content, high school dropout rates, and college entrance and completion rates, across groups of students. Partly as a result of policies to desegregate public schools and create smaller class sizes, the 1970s and 1980s saw black-white gaps in school performance shrink (Gamoran 2001).  But even as overall test scores have improved for all groups, racial and ethnic gaps persist. In both 2009 and 2011, there was still more than 20 points between the test scores of blacks and Hispanics, and those of whites, in both 4th and 8th grade math and reading (NCES 2009, 2011).

Income gaps have also grown. The widening income inequality in the United States of the last few decades has been accompanied by the rising effect of income on children’s test scores.  Consider that the average difference in standardized test scores in reading and math between children whose family incomes are at the 90th percentile, or about $160,000 in 2008, compared to peers from families at the 10th percentile, which was about $17,500 in 2008, translates to between than 3 and 6 years of learning in middle or high school[ii] (Reardon 2011). Simply put, children from less well-off families are learning less. Indeed, the achievement gap between children from the wealthiest families and everyone else (what Reardon calls the 90/10 income gap) is now twice the size of the black-white achievement gap.

Income has also becoming increasingly influential in determining who reaches and completes college. More than half of young people from families in the highest income bracket have bachelor’s degrees by the time they are 25, compared to less than 10 percent of those from the bottom bracket (Gamoran 2013). While we still do not know the precise ways in which parental income matters in children’s achievement, compelling evidence suggests where to look: better off parents are able to enroll their children in better schools (Diamond and Gomez 2004), tend to insure their children’s intellectual development by insisting upon advanced classes, closely oversee the college application process, and enroll them in activities like private tutoring, music and sports lessons (Lareau 1989, 2003; Wrigley 1989).

We also know that the academic rigor within the curriculum matters for closing the achievement gap, with more challenging content disproportionately helping low-income children. Consider the efforts of Chicago Public Schools to bring the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Programs (IBDP) to 13 of the city’s neighborhood high schools, Compared to peers outside of the program, IBDP students from the graduating classes of 2003-2007 were “40 percent more likely to attend a four-year college and 50 percent more likely to attend a more selective college” (Coca, Johnson and Kelley-Kemple 2012). Sadly, such opportunities are relatively few for low-income children. This is problematic; data released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reveal that a quarter of our public high schools with the highest percentages of black and Latino students do not have any Algebra II courses, and a third do not have any Chemistry courses. Black students are more than four times as likely as whites, and Latino students are twice as likely as whites, to attend schools in which 20% of the teachers fall short of meeting all state teaching requirements (Rich 2014).

Immigrants and Achievement Gaps

Because achievement gap data are mainly collected along racial and ethnic lines, we do not know how the children of immigrants are doing in school. We can, however, connect the dots between immigrant status and low socioeconomic status. In fact, in 2006, 22 percent of children of immigrants, as compared to 16% of children of native born parents, came from poor families (income below the federal poverty level); and 51 percent of the children of immigrants, as compared to 35 percent of children of native born parents, were from low income families (income below twice the federal poverty level) (Fortuny et al. 2009).

From data mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, we further know that 10% of our K-12 students are classified as “ELL,” or “English Language Learners,” who qualify for additional linguistic support. Overall, we know that ELLs’ scores on reading and mathematics tend to be lower than for non ELLs[iii] (Slama 2012), and overall, ELLs go to public schools that have lower standardized test scores (Fry 2008). A closer look at these schools gives us a more nuanced understanding of why this achievement gap exists. ELLs tend to go to under-resourced schools having the drawbacks we know accompany low academic performance – more students, disproportionately from poor families, and bigger class sizes. Indeed, non ELLs at these schools are also not doing well. An analysis of standardized test scores for public schools in Arizona,

California, Florida, New York and Texas, the five states that educate about 70% of ELLs in the nation, reveal that in cases where ELLs attend higher performing schools, the gap in test scores with their non ELL counterparts is much smaller (Fry 2008).

Social Capital and Achievement Gaps

Most of the research on social capital focuses on native-born blacks and whites, not immigrants. Such research has found that poor and low-income parents often do not know what they need to know to help their children navigate schools with success. Many do not know, for example, that schools differ profoundly in culture and rigor, nor do they understand the process of choosing the best one available. One study found, for instance, that working-class African American parents tended to default to their neighborhood school because of proximity, but because they lived in low-income areas, such schools were neither well-resourced nor high performing. Middle-class African American parents, in contrast, knew which areas had good schools and could afford to live there (Diamond and Gomez 2004). Another gap in knowledge: many parents do not understand the importance of homework nor possess the skills to help their children complete it (Lareau 1989).

Understanding the diverse ways in which social capital functions can be of help in remedying these gaps. Programs for poor and low-income youth can start as early as sixth grade to prepare children for college – providing structure for homework, advising on appropriate classes, and facilitating the standardized tests that have become so necessary for college admission. Upward Bound, a Federal Trio program, is exemplary. The program offers afterschool tutoring and academic coursework during the school year, guidance about the college application process, and in some cases, a summer residential program at a local college or university. It has been shown to have large effects on four-year college enrollments among such students (Bangser 2014).

Social capital research reveals similar mechanisms that make for success among immigrant populations. Importantly, however, while the mechanisms may be the same, the extent of social capital networks differs distinctly across populations. In New York City, for instance, Russian Jews have access to social service organizations that provide a wide spectrum of supports. These organizations have long histories; they were built by and for earlier Jewish immigrants, dating back to the early 20th century and later during the 1930s and 1940s, to receive refugees fleeing the Holocaust (Kasinitz 2008).

My comparative research of Chinese and Latino immigrants, mainly from working-class immigrant families in New York City, illustrates that here, too, social capital operates in predictable ways, although it comes from different sources and is unevenly distributed across different communities (Louie 2004; 2011; 2012). In the research that I did in 1998-1999 with the Chinese, I interviewed 68 children of immigrants, who had either arrived in the United States by the age of 12 or had been born here. These young people were attending Hunter College and Columbia University in New York City, and nearly two-thirds had grown up in one of the three Chinatowns in New York City (Manhattan, Flushing, Queens, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn), or in other neighborhoods with high numbers of Chinese immigrants, such as Elmhurst/Corona in Queens, many of whom were connected to the Chinatowns through their jobs.

Thanks to domestic and transnational wealth from Asia, the Chinese immigrant communities in New York City have built ethnic economies that involve Chinese of diverse social class backgrounds. Poor and low-income Chinese immigrant families live in areas with public schools that are manifestly better than those in areas populated by Latinos. The Chinese media tell them how American schooling works, and information about schooling is readily available from their middle-class family and Chinese American friends. Some Chinese immigrants even have the funds to enroll their children in Chinese-owned and -run academic preparatory schools (e.g., cram schools), another source of academic rigor and more general information about schooling and college (Kwong 1987; Kwong and Miscevic 2005).

The case is quite different in the Latino communities I studied, which again, differ from one another. From December 2001-July 2005, I and three research assistants surveyed and interviewed 113 members of Dominican and Colombian families: 76 children, who had either arrived in the United States by the age of 12, or were born here, and 37 of their immigrant parents. By the time of our interviews, the young people had transitioned to more than 20 colleges in northeastern America, of different types and differing levels of prestige.

The Dominican immigrants live in poorer, more socially isolated communities with little wealth and generally inferior public schools. Fellow Dominican friends and kin tell them about the better schools, but these are usually Catholic schools that charge tuitions above the reach of many of the Dominican families (Louie and Holdaway 2009). Colombian immigration, on the other hand, like the Chinese, has been more economically diverse. However, unlike the Chinese, Colombians settle in neighborhood and social network patterns that reproduce those they left behind. The working- and middle-class Colombian immigrants thus live in different worlds, and the former are left on their own, without the resources that exist in the Chinese neighborhoods.

For both Dominicans and working-class Colombians, then, social capital tends to come in the form of a teacher or guidance counselor, a friendly neighbor, a classmate’s parent, or at the organizational level, with Upward Bound, or a community-based organization, whether ethnically based or not. These two groups cannot rely upon extensive networks within their ethnic communities to inform them about the schooling scenario in the United States.

One additional community of immigrants cutting across many racial and ethnic groups is even more cut off from sources of social capital: undocumented adults and children. Almost thirty percent of America’s young people are the children of undocumented immigrants: 1.1 million are foreign-born and without legal status, and another 4 million are the U.S.-born citizen children of undocumented immigrants. Because of documentation status, these young people are often blocked from even official sources of support. This is the case even for young U.S.-born citizens, as their undocumented parents are less likely to access benefits, like center-based daycare, to which the children are legally entitled, for fear of detection (Yoshikawa 2011).


I do not mean to suggest that an awareness of social capital can alleviate the structural problems inherent in our society. We still need better public policies on housing, living wages, public transportation and documentation status to reduce inequalities among parents, and thus, their children; we need to continue our trajectory towards more rigorous schools across our system. As we work towards these long-term changes, however, we should remember that social capital is a powerful tool that we can use right now to reduce the achievement gap.

Consider a few examples in the case of immigrants. While federal policies continue to focus on control of immigrant flows, rather than the actual integration of immigrants and their children, some state-level organizations have taken on this task by linking immigrant-serving organizations to one another and to those in greatest need. One such example is the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), which provides training, leadership development, and institutional organizing for a spectrum of organizations. In this way, immigrant serving organizations not only provide crucial information to their constituencies but also learn from one another about how to improve this transmission of information. Crucial linkages can be made between public schools educating immigrant children and community-based organizations that often serve these children and their parents and grandparents. These organizations have a rich history of engaging with families in urban, low-income areas, offering valuable information about the communities in which they live, fostering their civic participation and providing services in health care,  housing, and job training. As such, they can be powerful purveyors of information and resource-sharing for public schools embarked in their own efforts to engage immigrant parents. Through these and other strategies, social capital in action can reduce the isolation and increase the assets of parents and their children for their benefit and for the communities, states and nation to which they belong.

Vivian Louie is a Program Officer at the William T. Grant Foundation.


Baecher, Laura. 2014 May 21. Policies and Practices to Promote English Language Learner Academic Success. Idea Lab. CUNY Institute for Education Policy. Retrieved from

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Coca, Vanessa, David Johnson, and Thomas Kelley-Kemple. 2011. Working to My Potential: The Postsecondary Experiences of CPS Students in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, Chicago.

Diamond, John B. and Kimberly Gomez. 2004. African American Parents’ Educational Orientations: The Importance of Social Class and Parents’ Perceptions of Schools. Education and Urban Society 36(4): 383-427.

Fortuny, Kristen, Randy Capps, Margaret Simms, and Ajay Chaudry. 2009. Children of Immigrants: National and State Characteristics. Washington DC: Urban Institute.

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Gamoran, A. 2001. American schooling and educational inequality: A forecast for the 21st century. Sociology of Education, Extra Issue, 135-153.

Gamoran, Adam. 2013. Inequality Is the Problem: Prioritizing Research on Reducing Inequality. Pages 6-15 in Annual Report. William T. Grant Foundation. NY.

Kasinitz, Philip. 2008. Becoming American, Becoming Minority, Getting Ahead: The Role of Racial and Ethnic Status in the Upward Mobility of the Children of Immigrants. ANNALS, AAPSS, 620: 253-269.

Kwong, Peter. 1987. The New Chinatown. New York: Noonday Press.

Kwong, Peter and Dušanka Miščevič. 2005. Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community. New York & London: The New Press.

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[i] The children of immigrants include both the foreign-born and U.S.-born children of immigrants.

[ii] Since different tests use different test score scales, it is difficult to compare differences in scores across tests. Researchers use standard deviation units as a way to compare the size of gaps even when drawing on numerous studies that use different tests. According to Reardon (2011),  a gap of 1 standard deviation is equivalent to about 3 to 6 years of learning in middle or high school.

[iii] For more information on policies and practices that can promote ELL academic success, see Baecher (2014).

Comments on this Post

  1. Vivian Louie is right to call attention to the shameful degree of educational inequality that still persists in the U.S. despite decades of too ineffective educational reform. She is also right to urge shifting more attention to social capital as a way to reduce this inequality. But she defines this shift too narrowly and underestimates how crucial a broader view of it is if we want to significantly improve the education of poor and minority children.

    She fails to point out that some of the most serious “structural problems inherent in our society” are not just in non-school systems such as housing, employment, and transportation that school reform can’t fix, but in a prevailing educational reform paradigm that focuses nearly all resources and policy attention on “fixing the schools” to the neglect children’s education from birth on and both in and out of school.

    This is the main problem that has caused so many education reforms to fail for so many decades. Happly, there is finally a growing recognition of this and much more attention to reforms such as community schools, parent education, family support, and after school programs. If properly implemented, as I hope now will happen in New York City under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership, this can lead to a fundamental shift from our present “schools alone” focus on education reform to seeing education as a shared responsibility of the entire community, with many more resources mobilized to ensure that all children get the support and help they need to become competent and responsible citizens. That is what will finally put us on the road to closing the achievement gap.

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