In the long fight to close achievement gaps in America’s public schools, some troubling trends are holding strong. The gap between higher- and lower-income students persists, and race, income, and segregation remain deeply connected when it comes to academic performance. But new research shows that the racial gap, though stubborn, appears to be slowly closing.
That’s a finding from a study released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute that lends hard data to the progress and continued struggles to put students of different demographic groups on equal footing.
The good news from the report: African American and Hispanic students are continuing to catch up to their white counterparts. The gender gap is also gradually narrowing in math and reading: Female students lag males in math by a smaller margin than they did 10 years ago, and male students are catching up in reading, though not quite as quickly.
The bad news: the gap in achievement between poor and wealthy students is as wide as ever, and the proportion of poor students increased significantly over the period of study. Also bad: the gap has actually grown between students who are still learning English (in this study, that was limited to Hispanic and Asian children) and those who are fluent.
“We are going to have to really understand why the social-class gap is not closing. And that’s for whites as well,” says Martin Carnoy, an author of the report. “Poor kids are not making gains relative to non-poor kids. The average lower social class kid is not making gains. The schools have to put much more effort into this.”
Although test scores are rising overall for every demographic, the gains aren’t uniform across all states. An earlier study showed that many states that posted the lowest gains were ones with minimal minority populations. Others, like Michigan and Wisconsin, were states with “long histories of promoting vouchers and charter schools to stimulate privately managed education, to no avail.” The problem for students in these states, most of whom are white, isn’t that second- and third-generation Hispanics are catching up, or that Asian students are pulling further ahead. “The white students in these states are making lower gains,” Carnoy and García write “because their state governments are not making the kinds of public school reforms made by other states, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont, and, in the 1990s, North Carolina”—reforms like strengthening math curriculum and training teachers.
On a national level, Hispanic and African American students in the United States are making headway despite the odds stacked against them. Hispanic and African American students are more likely to be poor and live in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods or areas of concentrated poverty. And even when these students aren’t poor themselves, they’re more likely to attend schools with large proportions of poor students. More than 40 percent of black and Hispanic students were in high-poverty schools by 2013, compared to only 7 percent of white students, according to the study.
“These kids, on average, are going to the schools which allegedly should not be very helpful to them to do well, according to what we know about these schools,” Carnoy says. “That means that somehow either our judgment of these schools is incorrect, these high-minority, high-poverty schools, or there’s something happening outside getting them to do better.”
That fact, he says, should temper the condemnation of public schools that has come from many politicians, including President-elect Donald Trump and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. It could also be a case for not making radical changes based on the idea that schools are uniformly failing their students and communities.
“In terms of these ethnic gaps closing, and kids of color doing well in the system, the public schools should keep doing what they’re doing, making the kind of reforms they’re making, whether it’s trying to improve the curriculum, or as in some states, like California, assigning more money to poor kids, trying to do a better job of getting good teachers into these high-minority, high-poverty schools,” Carnoy says.
But language programs still need to make more progress to help English-learners, and the fact that schools are generally becoming poorer also raises some red flags. Among the eighth-graders they sampled for mathematics performance, the share of schools classified as high-poverty rose from 15.7 percent in 1996 to 24.1 percent in 2013. In that same time, the number of schools with more than half of their students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch rose from 31.2 percent to 48.3 percent.
To reach their findings, Carnoy and García examined fourth and eighth graders in reading and mathematics from 2003 to 2013, and eighth graders in mathematics from 1996 to 2013. They used individual students’ microdata from the National Assessment of Education Progress, which allowed them to separately analyze the influence of English language ability on the academic performance of Hispanic and Asian American students.
Their report is more silver lining than cloud: the racial achievement gap has long been one of the more damning symptoms of inequity in education, and it’s getting better. Economic inequality, however, is not—and its consequences on children will shape the future.
The study concludes with some concrete policy recommendations: investing in early childhood education (particularly by strengthening the math curriculum), strengthening public education, and investing in afterschool and summer enrichment programs. These steps aren’t enough to solve social divisions in the United States, but, the authors write, “neither is doing nothing or implementing policies that don’t work for anyone.”