The Reality of Our Race-Based Achievement Gap

In much of recent memory, battles over education reform have been portrayed as pitting Republican governors against teachers’ unions. Lately, though, we’ve also seen hard-line, reform-minded Democrats going against the party’s traditional base of labor liberals, exemplified by the Chicago Teachers Union's two-week strike to oppose (among other things) Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to tie compensation to student improvement. But new research shows that there might be something else going on than simple union-versus-education reform infighting. Instead, battles over education may be tied to a much deeper issue: race.

A new paper published in the academic journal American Politics Research found that policymakers are far more likely to enact “teacher quality” bills when white student achievement drops—but not when graduation rates are poor among African American students. The authors, University of Notre Dame doctoral candidate Michael T. Hartney and Baylor assistant professor of political science Patrick Flavin, looked at national opinion surveys of white voters that identified the state in which respondents were located and also at how the voter responded to questions that asked whether education was important or if the quality of schools needed improvement. “Then we include what the actual on-the-ground graduation rate was for white and black students within their state,” Hartney says. Whether white citizens realize it, they’re more likely to prioritize education as an important issue only when white students aren’t doing as well—while they are not at all likely to prioritize it when African American student achievement lags. The research also discovered that when white students were doing comparatively worse, ranking in the 10th percentile, states enacted two more education policy reforms than when white students were doing well, scoring in the 90th percentile. There was no such legislative action correlated to poor achievement rates by black students.

Places that perhaps best typify this research are states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Connecticut. All are boastful of their student achievement, but they all have long-running gaps in white and black student achievement and relatively small African American populations. In Wisconsin, where African Americans make up just 6 percent of the population, black student test scores lag some 30 points behind their white peers. A recent Connecticut state report found that while it touts some of the best schools in the nation, the state also has the widest achievement gap, failing low-income populations that are disproportionately made up of minority students. The report points out that “over the past six years, the percentage of low-income students who performed at the highest levels (that is, at goal or above) has increased only about 1% each year.” Eighty-seven percent of white students meet goals on test scores in tenth grade; just 42 percent of African American students meet goals.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit group that tracks education reforms in the states each year with an annual report, says 23 states have made changes to teacher-quality evaluations in the past three years. It notes in its most recent report that among those, five states—including Minnesota—revised teacher-evaluation processes in 2011 without federal incentives to do so. Thirteen states over the past several years have tied teacher evaluations directly to student achievement. Yet these reforms are tied to race. Of the 13 states that linked student achievement to teacher evaluations, nine had fourth-grade math-test scores for white students that were below or roughly even with national test scores, according to a 2009 evaluation of national student test scores by race.

Though Hartney stresses that his findings don't necessarily mean whites' concern for their own race's educational success directly causes education reforms, he does note the data indicate a strong correlation: “White respondents sound the alarm about school quality when white students are performing poorly but not when African American students are performing poorly.” The researchers found that white voters were 12 percentage points less likely than African Americans to think the achievement gap was “very important.”

Why are whites so much less likely to think these gaps are important? Hartney points to a combination of factors. “We find that, controlling for all other individual level factors, simply being white, you're more likely to think that there already is equal opportunity for African American students. [Whites] are also more likely to be unaware that there is an achievement gap, and also less likely to believe that the government has the responsibility to do something about it.”

Whether being white causes these beliefs to be more prevalent is a question political scientists may never be able to answer, but what’s clear is that the correlation exists. “Neither my co-author nor I really believe these are driven by deep-seated racism,” Hartney says. “The achievement gap just isn't in their face every day.”

The reason this achievement gap perhaps isn’t “in the face” of white Americans every day is, in part, thanks to a long-running re-segregation of the K-12 school system. A report released in April by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a disturbing drop in school diversity in Maryland since the 1980s, when desegregation was at its height. Today, more than half of Maryland’s African American students attend minority-majority schools (populations that are 90 percent to 100 percent minority), a severe departure from 1989, when just a third of Maryland’s African American students attended such schools. Researchers also note that about a quarter (22 percent) of black Maryland students attend schools that are more than 99 percent minority. The Civil Rights project has found similar trends in Massachusetts and Virginia. Last year, they released a report that tracked this trend nationwide, as well as regional reports that find Latinos are segregated from white students in Western states and that Southern schools—desegregated by force after Brown v. Board of Education—are experiencing “slippage” back to segregation.

“The fact that you have segregation combined with the fact that localities are largely responsible for the funding of their schools means that you can have whites or the affluent not have to what we call ‘feel the pain’ of a low-performing urban district,” Hartney says. “Because they're not seeing that on a daily basis, it's very unlikely that they're going to call their public officials and say, 'Hey, this is a problem and we need to do something about it.' ”

Even Frederick M. Hess, who leads the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s education policy program, pointed out in 2011 that policymakers are going through something of an “achievement gap mania,” where political “elite” see closing the racial achievement gap as the pinnacle of education reform—on both the right and the left. Hess noted that from George W. Bush's secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, who called the achievement gap “the raging fire in American education,” to President Barack Obama, who has said it is the “civil-rights issue of our time,” politicians have brought the issue up as critical one. But all that rhetoric may not be enough, as long as a large chunk of Americans don't believe that an achievement gap exists in the first place. 

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