Social Equity Theory and Racial-Ethnic Achievement Gaps


  • Clark McKown

    Corresponding author
    1. Rush University Medical Center
    • Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Clark McKown, Rush NeuroBehavioral Center, 4711 Golf Road, Suite 1100, Skokie, IL 60076. Electronic mail may be sent to

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  • This study was made possible by a William T. Grant Foundation Scholar's Award to Clark McKown. Thanks to Laura Gumbiner, Anne Gregory, Stephen Quintana, Michael Strambler, and Rhona Weinstein for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


In the United States, racial-ethnic differences on tests of school readiness and academic achievement continue. A complete understanding of the origins of racial-ethnic achievement gaps is still lacking. This article describes social equity theory (SET), which proposes that racial-ethnic achievement gaps originate from two kinds of social process, direct and signal influences, that these two kinds of processes operate across developmental contexts, and that the kind of influence and the setting in which they are enacted change with age. Evidence supporting each of SET's key propositions is discussed in the context of a critical review of research on the Black–White achievement gap. Specific developmental hypotheses derived from SET are described, along with proposed standards of evidence for testing those hypotheses.