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School gardens in the city. Does environmental equity help close the achievement gap?

Summary


School gardens could serve as gateways to reducing the academic achievement gap

The aim of this study was to examine whether school gardens can help lessen race and class inequality in academic achievement — that is, to serve as gateways to help close the achievement gap. Previous research shows that due to environmental disparities in school and neighborhood contexts, African-American and low-income children spend less time in activities that promote physical, cognitive, and social capabilities. Previous research also indicates that learning in school gardens positively influences academic achievement. This study, then, is based on the premise that engagement with school gardens may help close the achievement gap. Given that lower-income students — as well as Black and Latino students — live in neighborhoods and attend schools with fewer resources, it is reasonable to believe that gaining an important resource, such as a school garden, could result in positive outcomes related to academic achievement, environmental attitudes and nutritional knowledge.

The researchers used math, reading, and science standardized test results of all fifth-grade students enrolled in the public schools in Washington, DC to examine differences between traditional and garden-based learning. Approximately 48% of the schools in DC with 5th-grade students have gardens; and students enrolled in classes using a garden-based curriculum are required to participate in gardening activities.

Data collection included an assessment of student access to school gardens according to their race and income. While Washington DC is highly segregated by race and income, school gardens seem to be relatively distributed throughout the city’s eight Wards. Yet, Black students and students on free or reduced lunch are the groups that are over represented in schools that do not have school gardens.

Findings relating to test scores showed a positive link between school gardens and higher achievement in math, reading and science. For math, 22% of students in schools without gardens scored in the below basic category compared to 11% of students in schools with gardens; for reading, 61% of students in schools with gardens scored proficient or advanced, compared to 38% of students in schools without gardens; and for science, 47% of students in schools with gardens scored proficient or advanced, compared to 21% of students in schools without gardens. This means that nearly 80% of students in schools without gardens scored at the basic or below basic levels in science.

For reading test scores, school gardens reduced the extent to which race and class composition predict test scores. For science test scores, school gardens reduced the importance of race but not class in predicting scores. But, for math, school gardens did not predict test scores when including race and class composition. However, school gardens did reduce the extent to which race and class composition predicted math test scores.

These findings indicate that school gardens could contribute to more environmental equity in urban areas and serve as gateways to reducing the achievement gap between groups of students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status and race.

Citation

Ray, R., Fisher, D.R., Fisher-Maltese, C., (2016). School gardens in the city. Does environmental equity help close the achievement gap?. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(2), 379-395.

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