The “Neighborhood Gap” and Educational Achievement Disparities

June 29, 2015

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted a new study by Visiting Scholar Sean Reardon (Stanford) on the persistence of a “racial neighborhood income gap” in many metropolitan areas in the U.S. As Reardon and his colleagues found, while middle-class whites and Asian Americans in tend to live in neighborhoods where the median income matches or exceeds their own, black middle-class families tend to live in distinctly lower-income places. Because children who grow up in more affluent neighborhoods have been shown to fare better as adults than their counterparts in lower income neighborhoods, this study holds sobering implications for black children in the U.S., even those who belong to middle-class families.

Among the disadvantages associated with residing in a lower income area is lack of access to high quality public education. During his time in residence at the Foundation, Reardon has researched educational achievement gaps in the U.S., looking in particular at racial and socioeconomic inequalities. In a new interview with the Foundation, he discussed the widening of the economic achievement gap and the troubling persistence of racial disparities by neighborhood.

Q. Your current research examines the factors behind racial and economic achievement gaps in US public education. While the racial achievement gap appears to be on the decline, the economic achievement gap has increased over the last few decades. What accounts for this divergence?

The economic achievement gap in the country has been growing largely due to the achievement gap between students from high income families and students from middle class families. Over the last few decades, this gap has widened due to rising income inequality and high income parents’ increasing investment in (and anxiety about) their kids’ education. These parents are putting in a lot more resources toward their kids’ cognitive development in early childhood, and they’re investing more money and time in their schools, extracurricular activities, and summer programs. In other words, they’re spending a lot more time and money on their kids’ education, and this has increased achievement disparities between high income students and their middle class counterparts.

Toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, there has been some achievement convergence in terms of race: The black-white achievement gap—which was mostly a gap between low-income blacks and middle class whites—has narrowed thanks to better early childhood opportunities for working class black families. In particular, access to high quality pre-K programs has been found to have a positive effect on black kids’ test scores. But at the same time, we’re seeing a growing economic achievement gap even as the racial achievement gap narrows because the majority of the people in the U.S. are still white. So even though blacks are doing better, they’re not a big enough share of the bottom half of the income distribution to really shift the numbers on the income achievement gap.

And it’s not just black test scores that have gone up over time—test scores have gone up for everyone, but they’ve gone up much, much faster for high income students.

Q. To what extent can schools serve as an equalizing force by mitigating social disparities between different groups? What kinds of educational policies have been successful in reducing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps?

Our society is pretty inconsistent in the way we think and talk about schools. On the one hand, we still champion them as the engine of the American Dream, the agent of opportunity for poor kids. But on the other hand, we lament how unequal they are. You look around and you see that public schools are still extremely segregated; poor and minority students too often attend dilapidated schools with inexperienced teachers and no books, while richer and white kids more often go to lush, abundant suburban campuses. So it seems hard to see how can they possibly be an equalizing force in society.

The reality is that both are true: schools remain pretty unequal, but they’re more equal than the rest of kids’ lives. In other words, schools are equalizing in comparison to factors such as family resources, parents’ education levels, or neighborhood conditions. But of course, they’re not as equalizing as they could be.

There have been several policies over the last few decades that have helped make schools more equalizing. Desegregation in the 1960s and 70s led to substantial improvements in educational outcomes for black kids, particularly in the South. In the 80s and 90s, several states enacted school finance reform laws—either because the courts forced them to or because the legislature chose to enact them—which equalized, to different degrees, the amount of funding that went to schools in poor communities and richer communities. A lot of people think that the money for schools comes from local property taxes, and that therefore schools in richer communities have way more money to spend than schools in poor neighborhoods, but it actually varies quite a lot by state. Some states redistribute state funds, including income taxes, to provide extra resources to schools in low-income areas. There’s some new evidence that shows that this practice improves outcomes for low-income students, though more research in this area is needed.

Evidence also suggests that public investments in preschool are successful at reducing achievement gaps. A lot of states have invested in publicly funded pre-K over the last couple of decades, which means that more low-income and minority students have gotten access to preschool programs.

Q. Despite the overall decrease in the racial achievement gap, you have found surprising evidence that schools in higher income areas tend to be the ones with higher racial achievement gaps and more stereotypical patterns of gender achievement gaps (boys scoring higher in math, girls scoring higher in reading). What might help explain these trends?

This is new research that we haven’t finished yet, so the story is incomplete. We are seeing evidence that, even after we control for a large number of racial disparities in socioeconomic conditions, racial achievement gaps remain, and they are often larger in the most socioeconomically advantaged communities.

We have a couple ideas about what might drive these patterns, but haven’t tested them yet. Regarding the racial achievement gap in higher socioeconomic-status areas, one possibility is that in these communities, the wealth gap between whites and blacks remains significant. While we’ve controlled for racial income and parental education gaps, we don’t have good data on wealth and wealth disparities. So it could be the case that there are additional socioeconomic disparities—in the form of wealth disparities—in those higher income places that we aren’t yet accounting for.

The gender achievement gap patterns in these neighborhoods are even more puzzling. One theory is that perhaps in higher income places, there are more stay-at-home moms, which may reinforce conventional gender roles and therefore affect the extent to which students’ academic performance is gendered in stereotypical ways. But it’s unclear how significant this phenomenon is right now, and we need to look into it more. We have a lot more research to do on this.


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