The Intractable Achievement Gap


Earlier this week, the Council of the Great City Schools released a report on the academic performance of African American students. Two things stand out: Black students still measure very poorly on tests of reading and writing, and black students still lag behind their white peers, even after adjusting for income. Here is The New York Times with more:

Only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.

Poverty alone does not seem to explain the differences: poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches.

This is going to sound really banal, but one of the most frustrating things about the achievement gap between black and white students is that we don't actually have a clear culprit. It goes without saying that it's a lasting effect of Jim Crow. Still, it's not as clear-cut as "poverty" or "discrimination." That said, here's what we know.

We know that the achievement gap begins at a really early age; in a paper published this summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that the racial achievement gap began shortly after birth -- at age 2 -- and continuously widens, so that by 12th grade, black students significantly trail their white peers in nearly all subjects and are twice as likely as whites not to graduate or receive their GED.

We also know that housing patterns play a huge part in determining outcomes. I've made this point before, but at least part of the achievement gap is attributable to the fact that African Americans are mostly clustered together, with large numbers of middle-class blacks clustered in disproportionately lower-income neighborhoods, with poor schools and little in the way of educational services, like libraries. This isn't necessarily discriminatory; a lot of it flows from the simple fact that the black middle-class has more teachers and nurses than it does lawyers and doctors.

In any case, one effect of this is to put middle-class blacks in really close proximity to poverty. They have more and greater social ties to people below them on the socioeconomic ladder, and their children have easier access to social networks that don't place as high a premium on educational achievement. To say nothing of the fact that in the longer term, this leaves middle-class blacks without the valuable achievement networks that characterize life for well-to-do white kids. Odds are good that a middle-class white kid in Charlottesville, Virginia -- for instance -- will know professors, lawyers, and local politicians. By virtue of that contact, they will have a lot more access to those networks than a comparable black kid, which makes a huge difference in goals, aspirations, and opportunities.

That everything contributes to the racial achievement gap is what makes it so difficult to narrow. Worse, there is absolutely no appetite -- among the public, in government, or in the media -- for pursuing a comprehensive solution to the racial achievement gap. When education reform doesn't work, we'll give up and with the thought that "nothing will change anyway." Of course, I could be wrong. But until other people start panicking about the near 50 percent black-teen unemployment rate, I think it's safe to say that few people actually care.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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