Every few months someone in public life claims that the fundamental issue affecting education in the United States is not the fact that the descendants of enslaved Africans have fewer educational opportunities than others, but that it is parental income, parental education levels, geography, teen culture or the type of pet in the household.
This argument has been disproved numerous times through other data. This includes the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that the average reading scores for eighth-grade Black children from middle-class households are the same as that for poor white peers eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch. There’s also the Center for Reinventing Public Education’s report released last month about educational opportunities for Black children and their peers in 50 major cities. But people continue to make such arguments, obscuring the reality that the problem for Black children lies with their status as descendants of formerly-enslaved Africans.
Last month, the New York Times headlined that the “Education Gap Between Rich and Poor is Growing Wider”. This is neither surprising nor controversial, given that all gaps between the rich and poor are growing wider. The richest one percent are securing, by hook or by crook, increasing proportions of the national income and wealth, while the incomes of those with below average incomes stagnate or decline and their wealth, such as it is, approaches the vanishing point. As the funding pattern of education in this country is based on family income, increasing gaps in family income will result in increasing gaps in educational opportunities.
So far, so obvious, except to those whose paychecks depend on their not understanding such matters.
Unfortunately, the Times goes on to compare the income-based education gap with the racial education gap, arguing that while the former is widening, the latter has narrowed since the 1970s. It is not clear why Eduardo Porter, who wrote the piece, believed it necessary to make this comparison. But the effect of the Times piece is to take attention away from the lack of educational opportunities available to Black children. In any case, it would be astonishing if the educational achievement of African-Americans had not improved since the 1970s, a period when adult literacy classes were filled with Black men and women from the South who had never been to school or who had been allowed only a few years of primary education.
On the other hand, at the same time last month, the good folks at the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a study of School Composition and the Black-White Achievement Gap, which provides an analysis useful to those who wish to address the causes of that gap. The crucial underlying factor in the NAEP analysis is that on “average, White students attended schools that were nine percent Black while Black students attended schools that were 48 percent Black”. This, 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The NAEP researchers find that achievement for both Black and White students inversely tracks the percentage of Black students in schools. The higher the percentage of Black students, the lower the achievement levels for all students, and visa versa. Not coincidentally, funding also follows this pattern: The higher the percentage of Black students in a district or school the fewer educational resources provided.
The NAEP study implies that schools with high (60 percent and above) Black student percentages are simply not as good as schools with lower percentages, while within schools with high percentages of Black students, “within-school factors,” such as the quality of teaching and tracking, are tilted in favor of White students, who, even within these deprived schools, are in this way provided with resources not available to their African American peers.
NAEP also provides data with which to test the claim that the racial gap is narrowing, while the income gap is not. We can look, for example, at grade 8 reading scores between 1998 and 2013, using eligibility for National School Lunch Programs as a divider between lower and higher family incomes. In 1998, the gap for all students between those eligible and those ineligible was 24 points (246 and 270). In 2013, the gap in scores between students from poorer families and others was—24 points (254 and 278). We can also look at the racial gap, which, in 1998, was 27 points (243 Black, 271 White), while in 2013 it was 26 points (250 Black, 276 White), a one-point “narrowing” if you want to call it that. Or you could conclude, that on this basis, there has not been any narrowing of either the income or racial educational achievement gaps.
Of course, there is not a clear distinction between the category of those children whose families have incomes significantly below the national median and those children who are the descendants of enslaved Africans. For example, 25 percent of American children under 18 years of age living in poverty are Black, nearly twice the share of the descendants of enslaved Africans in the total population. As nearly 40 percent of Black children live in poverty (and the median income of all Black households is at the qualifying point for the National School Lunch Programs), it is not surprising that the average eighth-grade NAEP reading scores of Black children, both in 1998 and 2013, were close to the averages for all children eligible for National School Lunch Programs.
We can conclude from the NAEP study of school composition and educational achievement that expanding opportunities for Black children would help all children. We can surmise that a focus of resources on schools with enrollments over 60 percent Black would be an efficient way to raise the achievement of African American students as well as of the non-Black students attending them. From the further analysis of NAEP and Census data above, focusing on transforming education for Black children would even increase the educational achievement level of lower-income children in general.
Two questions come from all of this. Why is this so difficult for policy makers and responsible officials to understand? And why do so many commentators and others fail to realize this, too. We can hazard a guess – and sadly, it would also be the truth.