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Understanding the Gap: Math and Science Education in Underserved Communities

Math and science form the backbone of the modern world, playing critical roles in everything from medicine to technology. Education in math and science is essential for preparing students for college and careers in the modern economy. However, a persistent achievement gap exists between students from underserved communities and their more advantaged peers.
The gap begins early and widens over time, limiting opportunities and perpetuating inequities. It doesn’t only harm the affected individuals; it hinders societal progress at large. Continue reading to explore the reasons for this educational disparity and ways to address it.

The Scope of the Math and Science Gap Problem

Studies consistently show that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, like low-income families, certain minority groups and rural communities, lag in math and science skills. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 19% of 4th-grade students from low-income families were proficient in math in 2019, compared to 50% of students from high-income families.

Similar gaps exist in science achievement, starting from elementary school and continuing through high school. These early gaps have significant implications. Students who struggle with math and science fundamentals in K-12 are less likely to pursue STEM majors and careers. A report by ACT found that only 9% of students from low-income families met ACT's college readiness benchmarks in math and science, compared to 33% of students from high-income families.

Causes of the Achievement Gap

Many interrelated factors contribute to lower math and science achievement among underserved students:

Inadequate funding and resources

Schools in disadvantaged districts often need more funding for qualified STEM teachers, up-to-date facilities and technology and a high-quality curriculum.

Lower teacher qualifications

Teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely to have inexperienced math or science teachers. Many turn over frequently.

Less rigorous curricula

Underserved students have less access to advanced math and science courses and gifted programs. High-poverty schools often offer fewer STEM electives and Advanced Placement options.

Weak foundational skills

Students who struggle with early math skills like fractions and ratios will continue falling behind in higher-level math. Science depends heavily on strong math, reading and analytical skills.

Lower expectations and supports

Some research suggests teachers have lower academic expectations of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition, counselors provide less encouragement to pursue STEM fields.

Societal barriers

Discrimination, stereotype bias, and lack of representation in STEM limit opportunities and discourage STEM aspirations.

The Impact of the Gap


The implications of this gap stretch beyond academics:

Lower College Admittance and Graduation Rates

Students from underserved communities are often less prepared for rigorous college-level math and science courses, leading to lower admission rates in STEM majors and higher dropout rates.

Fewer Career Opportunities

With the rise of STEM industries, a solid foundation in math and science is essential for many high-paying jobs. Students need this foundation to be included in the job market.

Generational Impact

The educational disparity perpetuates the cycle of poverty in underserved communities. When one generation misses out on quality education, it becomes more challenging for the next generation to break free from socioeconomic constraints.

Strategies to Close the Gap


Closing the math and science education inequality gap requires systemic efforts at all levels. Some promising approaches include:

  • Increase funding to high-poverty school districts to improve teacher recruitment, facilities and STEM resources

  • Provide ongoing professional development for teachers to strengthen their skills in teaching math and science concepts

  • Expand access to advanced math and science courses, gifted programs and AP classes for underserved students showing aptitude and interest

  • Partner colleges and universities with K-12 schools to provide tutoring, mentoring and enrichment programs to inspire students

  • Offer tuition incentives, scholarships and supportive programs to help low-income and first-generation students complete STEM majors.

  • Provide career counseling and internship programs to show students opportunities available with math and science skills.

  • Encourage teacher training programs to produce educators committed to working in high-needs schools.

  • Develop Community Partnerships with local businesses to provide resources, mentorship and real-world experiences for students.

  • Explore grants and funding offered by NGOs and government programs that provide grants specifically aimed at enhancing STEM education in underserved communities. These funds can be used to update infrastructure, purchase new equipment or hire qualified teachers.

Harness the Resources You Need to Close the Gap

Closing these persistent gaps requires sustained efforts, but the payoff for individuals and society is immense. Students from all backgrounds can gain the STEM skills needed for college, career and life success with focused interventions.

The National Math and Science Initiative offers programs, coaching support and other resources to help build strong communities of educators who work together, practice together and reflect on the needs of their students. The programs and support offered by NMSI are designed to help educators build STEM-literate classrooms and inclusive learning environments to improve outcomes for all students.