Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Achievement Gap

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 23, 2016


White privilege, in academic measures, leads to higher school performance than minority children, creating, what experts call the “achievement gap.” Although many factors contribute to this gap, the increase in stressors, be it poverty, domestic violence, childhood neglect and abuse, make it difficult for children to learn, and to have a supportive learning environment. Further, minorities tend to go to schools with fewer resources to support their education. Given that, what is the role of the child psychiatrist? How can he/she advocate for these kids? Providing mental health care at these schools is one answer. If these schools were staffed with mental health professionals who were trained to help children cope with their environments, could their school performance improve? I bet so, but studies are needed to prove this hypothesis. Plus, what about the funding? Well, if we assume that kids with lower achievement are more likely to drop out, and therefore have fewer employment opportunities, and be more likely to end up in the correctional system, then keeping these kids in school could pay off in the long run. My solution: have every parent sign a consent for mental health treatment, at school, if the need arises and is deemed necessary by school personnel. That way, as soon as symptoms are identified, intervention could be immediate. There, I have solved the problem. Of course not, but I think that is a good first step.

4 Responses to “Achievement Gap”

  1. Shelly said

    What, kids in “white” schools don’t need help coping with their environment and stressors? They don’t need their parents to sign wavers for free mental health care as part of the school system? Only underprivileged kids have stress because they have less enriched school systems? That’s the reason they drop out and are undereducated? Really?

    • Follow the money, as the saying goes, and so it is my observation that funding is now directed to underprivileged children, leading to a reverse type of discrimination, such that economically privileged children have a hard time accessing services that they deserve to flourish. Thanks, as always.

  2. Judith Magee said

    Dear Dr. Vollmer:

    I completely agree with you about the lack of resources for students who attend public schools in terms of quality teachers, choice of electives, intervention programs for academically under-motivated students, and mental health services. I have been a special education teacher in Indio, California for the last three years. I currently teach such students at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. The school is located in the midst of four gang-infested neighborhoods. Most students walk to school and live in nearby apartment housing. Some students live in a nearby farm labor camp and every year we have families who live in homeless shelters near the school. Many of our parents are not familiar with the American educational system and lack computer skills and language ability to assist their children in school (accessed online at on July 10, 2016). Moreover, according to the school ranking website,, 97% of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch (accessed online at on July 10, 2016).

    Keeping in mind the socioeconomic level of the families who send their children to this school, I have seen first hand how the stressors you discuss affect their educational achievement. Because the students are focused on other issues, such as food, physical safety, and emotional security, they have difficulty sustaining attention on academics and so may act out in the classroom, impacting the learning environment of teachers, staff, service providers, parents, and students. It is a difficult conundrum to solve.

    I like your solution–adding more child psychiatrists to the staff at every school site. It is a good first step. However, if we can’t even afford art and music electives for the children, a school psychologist for general education students to access, how can a school district, financed by state taxes afford the services of a child psychiatrist?

    I would love to live in your world if it became a reality!

    Sorry I went on so long! But, you and agree about the problem and solution. If only the public sphere had more money!

    • Hello Judith,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. Yes, ultimately the issue is one of financial priorities. The schools need to see themselves as both educational and social service institutions in which the goals are to promote our next generation to thrive and be upwardly mobile. Unfortunately the system seems to contribute to the achievement gap rather than try to fix it. This gives me a feeling of tremendous sadness, but as with all large issues, the first step is to begin the conversation. Thank you again for stimulating more thoughts on the issue.

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