Income, segregated schools drive Black-white education gaps

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Given the same levels of family, school and neighborhood hardship, Black students would be more likely than white students to complete high school and attend college – reversing current disparities, according to researchers at Cornell University and University of Michigan.

Accounting for the unequal contexts in which Black and white children grow up and go to school also narrows test-score gaps substantially – by more than 60%, according to the study, which followed nearly 130,000 Michigan students from kindergarten through college enrollment.

The researchers say the findings show that a generation of federal education reforms aimed at closing racial gaps in achievement and attainment has not adequately addressed their two primary drivers: systemic economic inequality, and severely segregated schools.

“Our analysis reveals a stark divide in the social origins of Black and white children coming of age in the beginning of the 21st century – and the toll this divide takes on educational inequality,” the authors write.

Authors of the study are Peter Rich, an assistant professor of sociology and demographer in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and Katherine Michelmore, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

Sociologists and policymakers have long sought to assess the extent to which family background, school quality and neighborhood environment each contribute to educational disparities.

Rich and Michelmore’s work updates that understanding for the No Child Left Behind era, by tracking students educated entirely after passage of the 2001 legislation focused on school accountability and choice. Michigan offered an ideal case study, they said, since its students mirror the nation demographically and could be observed over 16 years, from 2002 to 2018. The authors obtained restricted access to student records through a partnership with the Michigan Education Research Initiative and the Michigan Department of Education.

The authors said their analysis suggests a need for complex policy solutions addressing systemic inequities. Despite decades of ostensibly race-neutral policies, they concluded, Black-white educational disparities persist because of a long history of racial exclusion that has limited Black Americans’ access to homeownership, high-achieving schools, college degrees and high-paying jobs.

The research was partly funded by the Cornell Population Center and the Center for Aging and Policy Studies, a consortium based at Syracuse University.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Credit: Cornell University/Newswise

Image: Sam Balye/Unsplash