American Opinion on the Achievement Gap



In 1965, when the so-called “Coleman Report” appeared, perhaps the most alarming statistic in it was “1.1 standard deviations.”  That was the size of the national test score gap between the average white 12th-grader and the average black 12th-grader.  It showed up in reading and in math, and it meant that the latter student fell into the lowly 13th percentile on the distribution of white students.  Put it this way: 87 out of 100 white students scored above the black student who stood at the 50th percentile on the black distribution scale.

Ever since then, the black-white achievement gap has been a central focus of education policy in the United States and pedagogical training in the education schools.  And where are we now, 50 years later?

In math, the gap has closed only six measly points on the percentile measure.  Instead of the average black student scoring in the 13th percentile on the white distribution, he scores at the 19th percentile.  In reading, improvement is better, but not by much.  There, the average black student reaches the 22nd percentile.  (See here for more analysis.)

A new study in Education Researcher entitled “The Politics of Achievement Gaps: U.S. Public Opinion on Race-Based and Wealth-Based Differences in Test Scores” provides a valuable contribution to our knowledge of how the American public—not the education professionals—explains the persistent test-score gap.  It’s by two researchers, one from Tulane, the other from University of Southern Denmark.  They proceeded by taking data from a YouGov survey that was part of a larger Stanford University project, but was centered on the public’s beliefs about achievement differences across income groups, black-white groups, and Hispanic-white groups.

The results are surprising, especially on the racial issue.  The researchers asked questions about how significant the gaps were to them, what kinds of programs should be tried to address them, and what causes them in the first place.

The first surprise is that, overall, the American public considers the poor-wealthy achievement gap a much higher priority than the black-white and Hispanic-white gaps.  To answer this question of relative urgency, the researchers gave respondents five possible answers: 1 = not a priority; 2 = low priority; 3 = medium priority; 4 = high priority; 5 = essential priority.  On this scale, the wealth gap came up at 3.68, the black-white gap at 3.03, the Hispanic-white at 2.85.  In other words, the wealth gap fell between medium and high priority, tilting the latter.  The black-white gap rated only medium priority, while the Hispanic-white dropped below medium priority.  That ho-hum medium score on the racial gaps certainly undercuts the tone of catastrophe and dismay that accompanies popular discussion of them in the media and among politicians and officials and education professors.

One might find a racial pattern in the responses, of course, given that the sample was representative of the U.S. population as a whole, making white the dominant race among the respondents (and therefore, presumably, making the sample less concerned about racial differences in test scores).  Indeed, this was the case, with whites rating the poor-wealthy gap a much bigger concern than the black-white gap (3.56 to 2.87, a .69 difference).  But note this: black respondents also gave the poor-wealthy gap a higher priority, though just barely (3.90 to 3.87).

In other words, racial difference didn’t outdo income difference even among African Americans, though both were still strong priorities among them (though slightly below “high”).  Given how much more attention the racial factor receives than the income factor when it comes to debates and proposals regarding educational achievement, this finding is worth circulating among education reporters at every newspaper and magazine in the country.  People don’t assign the gap exclusively to racial issues nearly as much as the journalists think they do.

This brings us to the factors people identify as causes of the achievement gap.  The Obama Administration, for example, has based some of its school policies on the premise that the school system is biased and discriminatory.  Noting that minority students receive more severe punishments for similar violations than white students do, the Departments of Justice and Education warned school districts that unless the disparities were corrected, they shall be liable to Federal investigations and enforcement.  (See here for further discussion and here for a sharper critique.)  As is typical of the Administration, bias is held up as the prime explanation for a disparate outcome.  The inference is clear: If black students perform well below white students, one reason is that they do their schoolwork in a discriminatory climate.

But when we ask the people at large, we get a different answer.  In the Education Researcher study, when respondents were queried about causes for the gaps, “Discrimination/injustice” came up well below other causes.  Here, we had a four-point scale of 1 = none, 2 = a little, 3 = some, and 4 = a great deal.   Overall, the public attributed the black-white gap to discrimination at slightly less than “a little” (1.97).  Once again, black respondents answered quite differently, but they only raised the score to 2.38, two-thirds of a point below “some” and closer to “a little.”  For most black respondents, that is, discrimination and injustice were only somewhat a factor in low performance.

The whole sample rated another cause proposed by the researchers, “Student motivation,” more highly, putting it at 2.34.  The African American portion differed significantly here once more, we should note, lowering that rate to 1.82.  (It is noteworthy, too, that Hispanics rated low motivation even more highly than whites did to explain the black-white gap, setting it at 2.57, while whites set it at 2.40.)

The same pattern emerged with a third reason offered by the study, “Parenting.”  The whole sample rated it at 2.48 as the cause of the black-white gap.  Hispanics raised that figure to 2.70, white respondents to 2.60.  Here, with African Americans, we saw a huge discrepancy, with black respondents assigning “Parenting” an average score of only 1.66.

Finally, we had “genetic differences” offered by the researchers as a cause—a controversial topic, to be sure.  Overall, we had a score of only 1.51 for genes as an explanation for the racial gap.  Here was another interesting finding: blacks rated it more highly than whites did (1.78 to 1.46), and Hispanics even more highly (1.91).

These findings call into question the thrust of much political discussion of the education gap.  As the researchers say in their conclusion,

With public opinion being an important determinant of policymakers’ agendas and incentives, it might seem puzzling that education reformers often describe U.S. education inequity in terms of race-based gaps rather than wealth-based gaps.

Indeed, yes, and it isn’t hard to figure out why.  The decision by reformers to highlight race over income follows from the simple fact that our culture does the same thing.  There is far more discussion of racial difference than income difference in the news media, many more presentations and dramatizations of racial differences than income differences in the entertainment media, and many more lessons in the former than the latter in secondary and higher education.

But, one might object, what about all the talk of income inequality in America today?  That was the key to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, not racial issues (Black Lives Matter assailed him on just these grounds).  But while it is true that the term “income inequality” is on everyone’s lips, it’s hard to take it seriously when its basic set-up is so misleading and caricatured.  I mean the “One Percent” trope, the division of the super-rich from the “99%”—that is, everyone else.  When we raise such a tiny set of people on one side, those who make $428,000 a year, and we collect everyone who makes less than that on the other side, we produce a parody of class consciousness, not a genuine reflection of poor-wealthy gaps.  The person who lives in Atlanta and makes $150,000 a year has a lot more in common with the One Percent than he has with the person who lives in Atlanta and makes $25,000.

In other words, income differences are incremental and variable.  It’s harder to make a political program and a media story out of income differences than it is to make them out of racial differences, which are stark and polar.  When it comes to racial identity, you’re either black or white.  When it comes to income identity, unless you occupy the far extremes, you’re in a rough and fuzzy segment.  It depends on where you live, what you do, how large is your family . . .  Race is so much easier to politicize and dramatize.

What these findings show is that the politicizations and dramatizations of race by politicians, advocates, reporters, and commentators don’t reflect public opinion.

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