Published on Mon, Nov. 27, 2006
By Richard Day
(At Issue: Nov. 14, 2006, Race disparities persist in U.S. by Stephen Ohlemacher of the Associated Press, in the Lexington Herald-Leader)
The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that decades after the civil rights movement, racial disparities in income, education and home ownership persist and may be growing again. Median income for black households had remained about 60 percent of the income for white households since 1980. In dollar terms, the gap has grown from $18,123 to $19,683. Last year, data showed average incomes in white households to be two-thirds higher than those for blacks. Despite claims that "trickle down" economic policies create more jobs and help poor families, the evidence provides reason for doubt.
Closing educational achievement gaps is probably the nation's best avenue to racial equality, but gaps persist after more than a decade of intense effort and despite the highest levels of school accountability in our nation's history.
This trend can't be too surprising to anyone with a sense of American history. The collective effects of slavery, Jim Crow and persistent social attitudes designed to keep down African-Americans have played powerful roles. In that sense, the achievement gap was deliberately created -- over many decades -- by majority rule.
It is instructive to remember that achievement gaps were closing in the wake of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society social programs. As Harvard social-policy professor Christopher Jencks reported in his exhaustive book, The Black-White/Test Score Gap, the greatest gains made by black students came between 1968 and 1980 and were explained by the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty and school-based improvements.
What happens to a student outside school -- such as access to health care and a safe home environment -- matters when it comes to achievement in school. Direct and indirect benefits to black student achievement contributed to 0.6 standard deviation growth for blacks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, with a corresponding 0.1 standard deviation growth for whites.
This demonstrates the very definition of gap closing: finding ways to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged students while continuing growth among all students.
Unfortunately, President Ronald Reagan's economic policies reversed that, and the gap began to grow again. Reagan's decisions were informed by the prevalent social science view at that time: that school resources had little impact on student achievement.
Jencks, for example, argued in his influential 1972 book, Inequality, that reducing cognitive inequality would not do much to reduce economic inequality. He has since reversed his position, now stating that changes in education and earnings would reduce racial differences in crime, health and family structure.
New data prompted him to conclude that reducing the black-white test score gap is probably necessary and sufficient for reducing racial inequality in educational attainment and earnings. President Bush's economic policies echo those of Reagan. The best feature of Bush's education legislation, No Child Left Behind, may well be its title. It expresses the goal that schools will educate every student and will be evaluated by the performance of all subgroups of students, not just schoolwide averages. But NCLB is underfunded by billions of dollars, which, when combined with conservative economic policies, casts serious doubts about its success.
As Brandeis University law and social-policy professor Thomas Shapiro understood, "the wealth gap is not just a story of merit and achievement; it's also a story of the historical legacy of race in the United States." Changing that legacy will require more than strong leadership that motivates teachers to work harder and more effectively. It will require a fully funded and efficient system that provides the resources students need to attain high standards; greater access to pre-school and kindergarten programs, more help for English-language learners and special needs students, and additional school days.
There are a growing number of schools in low-income neighborhoods that are defying the odds and raising the performance of their students to top levels. It is being achieved with a combination of culture building, high expectations and hard work that focuses on each student's individual needs. But if one looks broadly at the performance of our schools, it is clear that much remains to be done. The census data demonstrate the cost to our nation if we fail to close achievement gaps across the board.
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