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Race, not just poverty, shapes who graduates in America — and other education lessons from a big new study

Race, not just poverty, shapes who graduates in America — and other education lessons from a big new study
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The study landed with a gut punch.

Black men earn significantly less than white men, even when they were raised in families making the same amount. Poor black boys tend to stay poor as adults, and wealthy black boys are more likely to be poor as adults than to stay wealthy.

“Black men raised in the top 1 percent — by millionaires — were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000,” explained a New York Times article, complete with graphics to let you follow different kids’ paths.   

“It was sobering to read,” said Ryan Smith the executive director of Education Trust – West, an education and civil rights advocacy group. “Me being a black man, obviously I’ve experienced some of the data, but to see it in black and white was tough.”

The study, released through the Equality of Opportunity Project, is noteworthy in scope, using data on millions of people born between 1978 and 1983 in the U.S. And while it focuses on their economic outcomes, the research also looks at education, where the impact of racism on black boys is also apparent. Here’s what the study tells us about schools and education policy.

Poverty is not a proxy for race when it comes to academic outcomes.

That’s clear in the data: Black students are much less likely to graduate from high school and attend college than white students with the same family income.

The differences were substantial. Whereas poor white men graduated high school about 78 percent of the time, black men whose families had the same income graduated only 70 percent of the time. Disparities for women exist too, but were much smaller.

Education policy sometimes proceeds under the assumption that socioeconomic status matters, but that race and racism — aside from their impact on family income — don’t.

This study suggests that just isn’t so.

Here’s another example: On federal math and reading exams, white eighth graders who qualified for subsidized lunch (indicating low family income) slightly outscored black eighth graders who did not qualify.

This has real-world consequences. A number of states that do not have school funding gaps between low- and high-income students still have gaps between white students and students of color, one recent analysis found.

In California, where Smith of Education Trust works, the state’s funding formula sends more money to schools with many low-income students. The idea is to get extra help for students who need it. But there aren’t additional resources allocated for black students who are behind academically, regardless of their families’ income.

“There are middle-income and upper-income African American students who are chronically underperforming and yet we’ve not created a structure to actually support their success,” Smith said. His group is supporting a bill in the California state legislature that would increase funding for a district’s lowest performing subgroup of students that doesn’t already get extra money. In many cases, that means black students.

“If those are African-American students in your state, in your districts, in your school, then we must at least have the conversation about what we can do differently,” he said.

Test scores may miss something in black girls.

The authors note a puzzling phenomenon: On average, black girls score lower on tests than white girls with the same family income, but there’s no such disparity in their adult earnings. This suggests that test scores don’t fully capture the skills of black girls.

Ironically, Raj Chetty, coauthor of this study, is perhaps best known in the education world for pioneering but controversial research on the links between test scores and adult income. (That research focused on teachers’ impact on student scores, which was found to translate into higher earnings later in life.)

The latest study doesn’t overturn the previous research, but it does raise questions about whether test scores may be less accurate for certain groups of students.

Can good schools and neighborhoods help close these gaps?

The paper points out that kids of all races do better in certain neighborhoods. “Black and white boys who grow up in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, higher test scores, higher median rents, and more two-parent households tend to have higher incomes in adulthood,” they write.

The research finds that up to 25 percent of the black-white income disparity is connected to the neighborhood a student grows up in. That suggests that ensuring families of different races live in the same neighborhood and attend school together — integration — can have a significant effect.

But it’s unclear to what extent the quality of a school makes a difference. This study relies on average test scores to define school quality, though that doesn’t actually say much about how effective schools are.

We do know that early childhood education, school integration, educational spending, certain charter schools, and better teachers can benefit students in the long run, sometimes substantially so.



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