Getting Behind the Black-White Achievement Gap

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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More than half a century after the Brown decision, the majority of black students still attend racially segregated and inferior schools. By a variety of measures, but perhaps most importantly in terms of teacher quality, the larger the percentage of black students in the school the lower the overall quality of teachers. Teacher quality matters for academic achievement. Below are some short takes on some other factors that lead to lower academic achievement among blacks.

Black children are much more likely to grow up in poverty or to suffer from economic hardship than white children. Anyone who discounts the social and economic disadvantage that black children experience when thinking about the black-white academic-achievement gap is simply getting it wrong.

Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner (Working Paper 14599, December 2008) reconfirms the finding that family income matters for academic achievement. Dahl and Lochner use a methodology that strengthens the causal claim that increases in family income lead to higher academic achievement for children. The researchers also find that “achievement for minorities (blacks or Hispanics) responds more to additional income than does achievement for whites. Achievement for children with low educated mothers increases more with income than does the achievement of children with more educated mothers.” Therefore, socioeconomic disadvantage appears to be a greater factor in low black student achievement than in low white student achievement. The researchers also find that income matters more the younger the child is and that income levels have to be maintained to have a continued effect.

A study discussed in The Economist, April 4th 2009, suggests ideas to fill in some of the missing pieces in Dahl and Lochner’s research. The study by Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that poor children are more likely to experience stress and that stress makes it harder for children to learn. The stress relationship suggests why a income level has to be maintained overtime to have a persistent effect. Increasing income one year and removing it another year is likely to increase stress the second year and lower academic achievement. The higher income must be maintained to sustain the lower stress level.

The Evans and Schamberg study was done on a sample of white youth only. One could imagine that black youth, poor and non-poor, might have higher stress levels than comparable white youth because of racial prejudice and discrimination. Additionally, even controlling for income, black families have much less wealth than whites and thus, in this sense, are still poorer than white families. The evidence is very strong that the socioeconomic disparities between black and white students are a factor behind the academic achievement gap.

Children in middle-class families are advantaged not only in income but they also tend to have more highly-educated parents, attend higher-quality schools from pre-kindergarten to college, and they also have more intellectually enriching extracurricular activities. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reviewed the research on class and I.Q. this past week.

A number of studies have shown that I.Q. is malleable and responsive to education and one's social environment. Kristof reported that "when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their I.Q.’s rise by 12 to 18 points, depending on the study." Also, "The Milwaukee Project . . . took African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation and assigned them randomly either to a control group that received no help or to a group that enjoyed intensive day care and education from 6 months of age until they left to enter first grade. By age 5, the children in the program averaged an I.Q. of 110, compared with 83 for children in the control group. Even years later in adolescence, those children were still 10 points ahead in I.Q."

I am generally skeptical of attempts to improve black outcomes through self-esteem. Many pop psychologists making this claim fail to note that blacks have higher global self-esteem than whites. On the other hand, blacks may have lower self-esteem related to academic matters specifically. The work on "stereotype threat" shows that black students can be psyched-out by racial stereotypes when taking an exam and do worse than they are capable of. It seems that researchers have found a way to psyche-up black students so that they perform to their full potential.

It is clear that black students face a number of social, economic and even psychological disadvantages that affect their academic performance. When intellectuals and policymakers ignore these facts they are doing a tremendous disservice to black students.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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