Among the wide-ranging challenges facing American educators, perhaps no issue is more pressing than the inequity in student achievement among racial/ethnic and socio-economic groups—a problem that in the early 2000s is somewhat contentiously referred to as the achievement gap.1 Since the early 1970s, analyses of nationally representative survey data have documented a persistent history of achievement differences, according to which Whites and especially east Asians enjoy relatively high average student performance while African Americans and some Hispanic subgroups experience relatively low average student performance. Moreover, children whose families are on the lower rungs of the social class ladder average far lower achievement and educational attainment levels than their wealthier counterparts. Thus, it is important to recognize that what is often characterized as a single gap between White students and all minority students is more accurately portrayed as multiple gaps between and within racial and social class groups.
However gaps are measured—whether by pre-school vocabulary, elementary school grades, middle school standardized test scores, or high school or college completion rates—the fact that there is a continuing history of race and social class differences in U.S. education is not debatable. Perhaps the best evidence comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), widely known as the nation's report card. NAEP trend data demonstrate persistent, if somewhat fluctuating, racial test score gaps going back to 1971. Although Black-White and Hispanic-White gaps in mathematics and reading steadily narrowed between 1971 and 1988, trends toward test score convergence reversed in the late 1980s. Some gaps stabilized and others actually widened throughout the 1990s. Since 1999, however, Black-White and Hispanic-White math and reading test score gaps have held fairly constant across age groups—with the exception of slight convergence in the Hispanic-White math gap and the Black-White reading gap among 9-year-olds. This convergence is trumpeted by the U.S. Department of Education as evidence of the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.
Figure 1 presents cross-sectional analyses of fourth and eighth grade students' mathematics and reading results from the 2007 main NAEP.2 Whites and Asian Pacific Americans score above national averages at both grade levels. Asian fourth grade students exceed the national math mean by .48 standard deviations (.50 SD approximates one year of academic growth) outperforming by .19 SD their White counterparts who also score above the national average. African Americans and His-panics score below the national average in fourth and eighth grade. The math gap is especially pronounced for African Americans (.61 SD below the mean), whereas Hispanic students score approximately .46 SD below the national average in mathematics and reading at both grade levels.
While standardized achievement data reveal students' relative mastery of specific knowledge and skills, still other data document differences in group-level educational attainment by alternate measures. For instance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school dropout rates for Blacks and especially Hispanics substantially exceed those for Whites and Asians. Although the gap between Blacks and Whites narrowed significantly between 1965 and 2005, the disparity in the graduation rates of Hispanics versus other racial/ethnic groups persists at double-digit rates. The alarmingly high Hispanic high school dropout rate—1.4 million Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24 were dropouts in 2005 (NCES, 2005)— is in fact twice that of Blacks and more than three times that of Whites and Asians (see Figure 2).3 These numbers prefigure similar trends in educational attainment at the college level, as Hispanics are about half as likely as their non-Hispanic peers to complete four years of college (Ver-nez & Mizell, 2002).
Dramatic demographic changes in the United States only heighten the importance of these described gaps in academic performance. Population trend data indicate that by 2025 fully one quarter of all U.S. K-12 students will be of Spanish-speaking origin. At the same time the standards-based accountability movement in education, on the rise since the late 1980s and focusing especially on state assessments and K-12 test scores, has shone a bright light on unrelenting racial/ethnic and socioeconomic differences in academic performance. Many policymakers have redoubled their efforts (perhaps sometimes only symbolically) to achieve group-level equality of educational outcomes, if not inputs. Tellingly, the preamble to NCLB explicitly states the goal of eliminating test-score outcome gaps by the year 2014. In other words, during the first two decades of the 21st century, official interest in these described achievement gaps in American education may be at an all-time high.
Policymakers are increasingly aware that the importance of closing gaps goes well beyond presumed links between improved minority student performance and improved job prospects for minorities. The moral and civic imperative to eliminate gaps is strong, but on a simply utilitarian rationale it can also be said that better educated students earn higher incomes, live healthier lives, pay higher taxes, and are less likely to be involved in crime. Columbia University's Henry Levin is a renowned researcher in the study of educational inequality and its costs. Working on the premise that high school graduation should serve as a minimal threshold for the standard of adequate education, he has investigated costs to society should educators fail to succeed in aiding greater numbers of students to procure a high school diploma. The report focuses on those individuals who at age 20 were not high school graduates in 2005, a group of approximately 700,000. The findings are sobering: For each of these individuals, over $200,000 is lost to society in federal, state, and local tax revenues and costs to the public health and criminal justice systems over the lifetime of each dropout. When aggregated the fiscal consequences to society for this single group of 700,000 students who leave school without high school diplomas is the staggering sum of $148 billion in lost tax revenues and additional public expenditures over the lifetime. Clearly it is in the nation's best interest to reduce dropout rates, particularly among non-Asian minorities, and to ensure that all children secure an adequate education (Levin et al., 2007).
James Coleman was a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University when his controversial 1966 report to the U.S. Congress, Equality of Educational Opportunity, became the first national study to offer a systemic description of racial/ethnic differences in academic achievement among children of various ages. Prior to the Coleman Report, investigations of this nature had been focused on educational inputs: School effectiveness was measured by the resources that went into schools, not the quality of the students who came out of them. To his surprise Coleman found that (1) while schools certainly influence student achievement—much of what tests measure must be learned in schools—and (2) although school quality varies widely in the United States, the large documented differences in the quality of schools attended by Black and White children fail to explain most of the difference in average levels of achievement between Blacks and Whites (Rothstein, 2004). These rather controversial findings have been cross-examined by many researchers. Few, if any, dispute Coleman's fundamental claims. Those who point to schools alone when searching for answers to stubborn outcome gaps may be ignoring the fact that children spend the vast majority of their waking hours each year somewhere other than the formal school setting. As developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbren-ner's ecological systems theory emphasizes, children are enveloped within families and they navigate social life with peers. They reside in neighborhoods and communities where schools are charged with their formal education, which takes place largely within individual classrooms. Each of these overlapping networks and domains conditions students' educational performance in ways that are not mutually exclusive. Children lead nested lives.
Soon after publication of the Coleman Report, the federal government allotted substantial resources across multiple levels in an attempt to close the family/school/community input gap. In fact, desegregation in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act combined with the Great Society's War on Poverty programs (including Head Start and compensatory Title I funding) helped reduce glaring resource inequities and coincided with nearly 20 years of steady progress in reducing both the Black-White and Hispanic-White test score gaps since 1971, per Figure 3. However, by the time U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell released the landmark 1983 report to Congress, A Nation at Risk, concerns about inequality on the domestic front were pushed into the background, giving way to a growing preoccupation with educational efficiency and global competitiveness. Thus, targeted programs for the poor and compensatory education reforms were rolled back throughout the 1980s. By 1988 the progress in narrowing educational opportunity and achievement gaps had stalled.
The widening of test score gaps in the late 1980s went largely unnoticed until 1994 when experimental psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published The Bell Curve to much fanfare and subsequent controversy. Their conclusions about the genetic inevitability of the gap were deduced from the research of others and resurrected in particular the much disputed claims of education psychologist Arthur Jensen, which were first published in 1969 in the Harvard Educational Review4. When a special task force of the American Psychological Association reviewed the data used by Herrnstein and Murray the association arrived at a much different conclusion: The paucity of direct evidence of the Black-White differential in psychometric intelligence simply could not support the genetic hypothesis. Richard E. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has charged the authors of The Bell Curve with having provided a “shockingly incomplete and biased” reading of the research (Nisbett, 1998, p. 96). As of 2008, what all psychologists agree upon is that a person's developed capacity for intelligent behavior often differs in predictable ways from the person's hereditary potential. So-called intelligence or aptitude tests measure the development of innate abilities. The collective research of American psychology leads one to conclude that environmental factors explain far more of the variance in achievement than the number of Blacks or Whites in a person's family tree (Neisser et al., 1996).
When people turn to an examination, then, of contextual factors contributing to socioeconomic and racial education gaps, the breadth and depth of their sources quickly becomes apparent. Because causes are layered and overlapping, they are best considered simultaneously across domains. From a top-down structural perspective one might perceive broad economic conditions as being linked to, say, state and local tax rate policies that bear directly, if also differentially, upon community labor markets and housing values—which, in turn, dictate school finance schemes. There are indeed sizeable gaps in educational resources that differentiate communities serving White and minority children. From a less structural, bottom-up perspective, concentrated on student effort and family influence, one sees substantial variation in parents' approach to child rearing. Whether children are talked at or listened to, how frequently they read and are read to, and whether or not they attend quality preschool and summer school are important factors that are conditioned by parents' effort and resources. Children's friends and peers pick up where families leave off, exerting increasing influence as students progress through schooling. In short, there is a dynamic and sometimes transformative relationship between the practices of real people—including students, parents, and peers—and the structures of school, society, and even history (Ortner, 2006).
Figure 4 shows a nested, albeit by no means exhaustive, depiction of the many structural and individual-level factors that have been examined to understand the causes of the gap. The embedded domains are not mutually exclusive categories. Rather, they are composed of related factors that act upon one another in complex ways that are often difficult to observe and quantify. One challenge, therefore, is to determine the extent to which the attributes of formal institutional settings and those of less formal student, family, peer group, and neighborhood and societal-level influences contribute to the gaps. A few of the better documented causes of these gaps are noted below.
Re-segregation and the Distribution of Teacher Quality. In June 2007, a divided U.S. Supreme Court restricted the ability of public school districts to use race in determining which schools students can attend. Most voluntary desegregation efforts by school districts are now unconstitutional. According to Professor Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the re-segregation of U.S. schools has accelerated since the early 1990s and continues to grow in all parts of the country, most conspicuously among African Americans and Hispanics. Not since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act have schools been as segregated as they are as of 2008. When people ask what it is about segregated schools that contributes to the racial achievement gap many point to course offerings, the composition of the student body, and perhaps especially the instruction gap. In a 1991 study of 900 Texas school districts, Harvard University's Achievement Gap Initiative director, Professor Ronald Ferguson, found that nearly all of the school-level variation in the gap in achievement between Blacks and Whites was attributable to systematic differences in the skills of their teachers. The simple fact is that far fewer of the best prepared teachers are teaching in schools where the vast majority of students are Black and/or Hispanic. These disparities in access to high-quality teachers and teaching are large and growing worse (Darling-Hammond, 2007).
Although quality teachers are important, it is nevertheless the case that most of the group-level variation in student achievement outcomes can be attributed to factors outside of schools. As findings based on and replicating the Coleman Report have time and again demonstrated, other structural conditions and individual-level factors apart from schools also affect gaps in achievement.
Socioeconomic Status and Parenting. Socioeconomic status (SES), a measure of parental education, employment, and income is among the most powerful predictors of student achievement. Many prominent social scientists have shown that the correlation between SES and race is inevitably linked to diminished access to quality education for underrepresented minorities, and thus, not surprisingly, to patterned racial inequality in educational outcomes. While only 7 percent of White mothers in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class of 1998–1999 (ECLS-K) had failed to complete high school, a full 18 percent of Black mothers and 35 percent of Latina mothers had failed to do so. Likewise, only 15 percent of White children (and 11 percent of Asians) under the age of 18 were living in poverty in 2005 compared to almost one-third of all Black and Hispanic children (NCES, 2006). Not only are Black and Hispanic children more likely to have parents who have not completed high school and are poor, but they are also more likely to attend schools with other poor children. To the degree that both family poverty and school poverty affect academic achievement, Hispanic and Black students are twice disadvantaged (Rumberger, 2007).
Some understanding of how SES influences achievement is provided by psychologists who study the interactions between parents and children. The research of psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University indicates that a lack of school-specific knowledge and a lack of opportunity (good parenting takes a lot of time) are what differentiate high and low SES parents in their parenting styles and approaches to raising children (Steinberg, 1996). Other research conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, links children's language development to parents' communication style. In a well-known 1995 study, they found that by age 3 the children of professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words—the children of welfare parents had vocabularies of about half as many words as their peers not living in poverty. Comparing children's vocabulary scores with their home life, Hart and Risley concluded that children's vocabulary correlated most closely to the number of words the parents spoke to their child. In addition, the number and kinds of words that children heard varied markedly by social class. In short, early childhood parenting practices and communication styles matter greatly and are patterned along class lines.
To reiterate, only about one-third of the racial gap in achievement can be attributed to what goes on in schools. Moreover, emerging research consensus indicates that family socioeconomic status accounts for at least another one-third of the gap in educational outcomes (Hedges and Nowell, 1999). While the effect of schools on a child's academic achievement is near impossible to isolate from other influences (including family SES), many researchers agree that even eliminating vast resource differences between schools and among families would not entirely close the racial gap in achievement. In fact, one of the most perplexing aspects of the racial test score gap is its persistence among even middle-class students and among students at the top of the achievement spec-trum—the very pool from which the nation's leaders are drawn (Jencks & Phillips, 1998).
Individual Identity and Stereotype Threat. The work of Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele helps to interpret the persistent achievement gaps even among students who are enrolled in the most competitive U.S. universities. In spite of the many obstacles that inhibit educational achievement among non-Asian minority students, many forge ahead to attain high levels of academic success. Some minorities within the academic vanguard, however, may encounter further achievement barriers corresponding to their relative identification with schooling. In his groundbreaking work on how stereotypes interact with students' identities to shape educational performance, Steele (1997) explains what he calls “stereotype threat.” According to Steele, stereotype threat arises when school-identified African Americans are in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group applies and must therefore be disconfirmed. Thus, stereotypes become particularly threatening for those who associate their identity and self-worth with success in a domain where their own group has been obviously stereotyped. So above and beyond the K-12 instruction gap and the socioeconomic inequality noted above, stereotypes about groups can influence the identity formation and cognitive functioning of individual group members. The burden of heightened awareness about stereotypes and social stigma affects especially test score outcome gaps among students of color who are otherwise apparently advantaged.
The coincidence of dramatic changes in U.S. demographics and new information about gaps accompanying the standards movement has led policymakers to increase pressure particularly on schools to demonstrate annual progress in student achievement for all students. That achievement gaps and disproportionately high dropout rates among non-Asian minorities have re-emerged on the policy agenda may seem relatively unsurprising in light of research demonstrating that the average high school graduate pays nearly $140,000 more in taxes over the course of a lifetime than a high school dropout. Baby Boomers whose overall well-being depends on the productivity of subsequent generations are concerned that the population base of American voters and taxpayers will increasingly come to be made up of persons less educated than they themselves were. Yet regardless of all researchers know about the incidence, consequences, and the causes of these gaps, government policy has only partially responded to this crisis. Even as most educational reform proceeds through almost entirely school-centered efforts to eliminate group-level achievement differences, the finding of the Coleman Report bears repeating: No more than 40% of the racial gap in educational outcomes can be attributed to the schools themselves (in isolation of other non-school factors). The ability to respond to the achievement gap problem will ultimately depend on whether people recognize and act on the broad range of factors that collectively shape student achievement.
1. The very term “achievement gap” is considered by many to be a problematic misnomer. By reframing group-level differences in academic outcomes as the shameful product of a long history of discriminatory gaps in educational inputs, Gloria Ladson-Billings, in her 2005 presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, asserted that the so-called achievement gap is more accurately portrayed as an historically accumulated “educational debt” still owed underrepresented minority and poor students (Ladson-Billings, 2006).
2. Main NAEP data are not available for 12th graders in 2007.
3. It should be noted, however, that Hispanics are also making real educational gains over generations— improvements that are obscured by the continuing influx of new immigrants (Smith, 2003).
4. Jensen argued that programs like Head Start, which tried to boost the academic performance of minority children, were doomed to failure because I.Q. was so heavily genetic and impervious to environmental influences (Gladwell, 2007).
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