Part 3—One group has been losing ground: Have black kids really been closing the achievement gap?
Last Friday, in the New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise mentioned this important fact, pretty much acting like everyone already knew it. In reality, the New York Times, like other news orgs, hasn’t shown the slightest interest in discussing that narrowing gap—or in explaining the way the narrowing has been accomplished.
How has that narrowing been achieved? On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, white kids’ scores have continued to rise—but scores by black kids have risen more! You’d almost think this would seem like news, especially since we’re constantly told that our lazy teachers have ruined the schools with their infernal unions.
You might think that—but you’d be wrong. In truth, the New York Times doesn’t care about such facts. It has made its disinterest quite clear through the years. Black kids can pretty much jump in the lake.
The New York Times doesn’t care.
That isn’t the fault of Tavernise, and her front-page report was important. Luckily, there was other news to report—gloomy, depressing, end-of-world news, the kind of education news that the New York Times likes to report.
Friend, do you want to believe that our crumb-bum teachers are destroying our schools with their unions? If so, the New York Times had some news for you! This news involved low-income kids. We’ll use the on-line headline:
TAVERNISE (2/10/12): Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies SayHave black kids narrowed the black-white gap? That was the subordinate news, offered as if you already knew it. The focus of this report was also important. But the focus was gloomy.
Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.
It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.
Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.
Hallelujah! The gap between rich and poor students has grown! We have some bad news to report!
In those opening paragraphs, Tavernise spoke about “rich” and “poor” kids. Before too long, she got more specific. According to one recent study by a Stanford professor, this is what has occurred:
TAVERNISE: The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.We’re comparing kids from the tenth percentile with their peers from the 90th rung. Comparing those kids, the gap has grown. In fact, it has grown a lot.
“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said. In the study he led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income—the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted—and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said, while the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk substantially.
Why are low-income kids losing ground? In one way, Tavernise doesn’t explain the source of the widening gap. Are tenth percentile kids achieving less as time goes by? Could it be that they’re holding their own, or even scoring better, while their upper-end peers show greater gains? This point isn’t explained in the Times report, although it’s quite significant. But in this passage, Tavernise explains why the gap may be widening:
TAVERNISE: One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.Spending by low-income families has grown by twenty percent (we assume that’s adjusted for inflation). But spending by lucky duckies has doubled! This isn’t fair for the low-income children, of course, but it’s the way things are going all through the culture as inequality soars. Meanwhile, Tavernise quoted another professor suggesting another well-known component in the production of such gaps. “James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.”
A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.
Low-income kids are way “behind” by the age of three, in part because of approaches to parenting which have little to do with the spending of money. These are some of the ways that achievement gap occurs.
For people who care about low-income kids, these are important topics. Needless to say, this front-page report came and went last week with barely a peep in the liberal press. As with the New York Times, so too with us: On balance, our disinterest in such topics has been quite clear for years. Unless some conservative dares to talk about very poor children in very poor neighborhoods, in which case we quiver with rage, faking our interest with skill!
Tomorrow, we’ll return to that subordinate story, the narrowing of the black-white gap. In closing, though, we do have to mention one manifestation from the New York Times.
In the passage we’ve quoted above, Professor Reardon says the achievement gap by income has grown by 40 percent over the past fifty years. The occasional reader might even wonder: But how big is that gap?
How big was the gap in 1960? How big was the gap by 2008? To help us ponder such basic questions, the Times presented one of its graphics. Click here; it’s on the left.
First, you emit a mordant chuckle. After that, you cry.
The graphic shows the rise in the gap between rich and poor, and the drop in the gap between black and white. But how big are these gaps in the present day? How big is the remaining gap between black kids and white kids, let’s say?
The graphic is hard to decipher. It describes its units in this way: “A difference of one unit is roughly equal to the difference in test scores between a fifth grader and an eighth grader.”
Does this mean that a unit is roughly equal to three academic years? Let’s assume it means something like that. It looks like the remaining gap between black and white kids is roughly 0.7 units (down from 1.2 units around 1955). This would mean that the remaining gap is about two academic years.
That isn’t great, but it’s much better than what it was. (And remember: Both groups of kids have been doing substantially better on the NAEP.) But people! The remaining gap is about two years—at what grade level?
A gap of two years would be pretty awful at the third grade level. A gap of two years wouldn’t be quite as horrible if we’re discussing tenth-graders. But nowhere does the graphic tell us what grade level we’re discussing. Maybe there’s something we’re missing here; we will happily stand corrected. But that info does seem pretty basic, and it isn't here.
That graphic shows the gap has narrowed to 0.7 units—but it doesn’t say at what grade level. Bless their hearts, the New York Times tries. We will happily stand corrected. But is this graphic their latest fail?
Tomorrow: Astounding disinterest