Illinois Issues: The Racial Achievement Gap

Nov 12, 2015

Why does it persist, even at well-funded suburban schools?

Essay  — Despite decades of public discourse and hand-wringing, the racial achievement gap persists across the country. Attention to this troubling pattern intensified once again this fall in response to the results of a new test in California — written specifically to reflect the recently implemented Common Core education standards. Racial gaps in scores on the new test were stark. While we might want to raise our eyebrows at the poor job California is doing educating all its children, we should exercise caution. Illinois numbers are generally among the worst in the country.

The achievement gap refers to disparities in academic outcomes between African-American and Latino students, and white and Asian-American students across a range of national and state-level indicators. These gaps in academic outcomes have many explanations. A big one is differences in resources. Social class — e.g., parents’ education, income, occupation — matters, and recent work by Stanford scholar Sean Reardon shows that the achievement gap between rich and poor students is increasing. But we also know that racial gaps persist even after we control for class.

When we began the research for our recent book, Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, we worried that conversations about achievement often conflated dynamics of race and class by comparing the experiences of students in predominantly black and Latino underfunded urban schools to those in highly resourced, predominantly white suburban schools. Too often we compare the extremes. But we know racial gaps persist even when we look at desegregated contexts, in school districts that have lots of resources, where poverty rates are low and when children are in the same building. So why do racial gaps continue even in these seemingly “good” schools? 

To answer this question, we conducted a multiyear study of Riverview, a highly successful high school in a large suburban community that many consider a model of successful integration. To protect the identities of those we interviewed, we don’t name the city or school where we did our study but use the pseudonym Riverview.  

For their book, John Diamond and Amanda Lewis spent five years conducting research on an unnamed suburban school they call "Riverview."

Overall, Riverview is a prosperous school district. In terms of spending per pupil, its typical budget allocations are double the average in the state where the school is located. Over three-quarters of its teachers hold master’s degrees. According to U.S. Census data, the city itself is a largely middle-class community with high median yearly family income, high owner-occupancy rates, and low poverty rates.  It is a self-described “diverse” and “liberal” community. Rather than being idiosyncratic, however, Riverview shares many similarities with diverse suburban districts nationally.

On paper, Riverview High School seems like a place where all students should have ample opportunities to succeed academically and thrive personally. The school’s academic accomplishments are impressive: high graduation rates, high college attendance rates, large numbers of National Merit Scholars and consistently high U.S. News High School rankings. And yet, as in many similar communities, Riverview’s resources don’t seem to pay off equally for all kids. On a wide range of measures, black and Latino students are not doing as well as their white and Asian-American counterparts. They are much less likely to be enrolled in high-track (sometimes referred to as honors) classes. They are less likely to attend four-year colleges. Their scores on state tests, as well as national tests like the ACT, are not as high. The question for us was, why?

Two popular explanations often dominate public discussions of these racial achievement gaps. One suggests the problem is that black and Latino parents are not pushing their kids to achieve — we can think of this as the reverse of the “tiger mom” problem. The term, coined by Yale law professor and author Amy Chua, refers to Asian parents pushing their children to achieve. The suggestion being that if only black and Latino families were more like white and Asian-American families, if only their parents cared more and encouraged more, their kids would do better. However, recent research is adding to the stacks of prior work that show the flaws in this narrative.

For example, research by Annette Lareau, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that when we examine their parenting practices up close, black middle-class families behave very much like white middle-class families in terms of their multiple efforts to push their kids, get them into good schools and make sure they are successful in and out of school. The only difference is that black families face additional constraints as they engage in what Lareau calls “concerted cultivation” of their children. Across a host of possible indicators, we find that black and Latino families value education just as much as other groups, if not more.   

We also know that the model minority myth often used as “evidence” that the right cultural disposition is the source of group-level academic success is deeply flawed. Turns out, the Asian-American “tiger mom” narrative is not such a good explanation for Asian-American students’ comparative success. As sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou and many other scholars have recently shown, Asian American’s collectively are doing quite well in large part because of how immigration laws are written— to admit the most highly educated members of sending countries — not because of the cultural value put on education.  

The fact is that Riverview is two schools in one. There is the honors white school, and then there's the other school.

The second and in many ways most commonly offered explanation for racial achievement gaps is that negative peer pressure among black and brown youth is to blame — if only they would stop discouraging each other from carrying backpacks full of science books. This “oppositional culture” theory appears often in national newspapers and comes from the mouths of some of our most influential public intellectuals. As Michelle Obama put it in an address to Bowie State not long ago, “And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white.”

John B. Diamond is the Hoefs-Bascom associate professor of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis and a faculty affiliate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

It is hard to disagree with the first lady — insinuating that a black child who has a book is trying to act white is indeed slander. The problem is that for the past 20 years as scholars have examined peer dynamics in schools, they have discovered repeatedly that oppositional culture is at best a minor phenomenon in very limited locations. It just isn’t a good explanation for why black and Latino students are not doing as well in school. For example, while researching our book, we looked at survey data from 15 school districts nationally and found again what our colleagues have found elsewhere. Once we control for social class, black students work just as hard if not harder in school. They spend just as much time on homework and care more about their education. High-achieving students are also popular among their peers. While kids from all racial groups continue the time-honored tradition of teasing some high achievers as “nerds” or “brainiacs,” there is no special racial relevance to the taunting. Turns out all adolescents are capable of being obnoxious.

So why do racial gaps in achievement persist in 2015?  In our search for answers, we looked first at the popular explanations — was this situation about disengaged parents or discouraging peers?  As we describe above, we found these theories to be largely distractions. There wasn’t a widespread pattern of either. If we wanted to understand racial patterns in achievement, our focus needed to be elsewhere.

What we found is that race has a key role in producing achievement differentials but not in the ways we typically assume. While contemporary patterns of racial inequality might look uncomfortably similar to those of the past, the mechanisms that produce them are somewhat different. Nobody at the school is operating with explicit racial animus or ill intent. There are no rule books pointing black and brown students toward the “minority classes.” And yet, classes in the school are largely segregated, and within the school community, different tracks have come to be associated with different groups.

We cannot necessarily expect parents to be a force for educational equity. In the end, it is still the school's job to advocate for practices that serve all children equally and well.

Julius, an upper middle-class high-achieving black student, described the school this way: “The fact is that Riverview is two schools in one. There is the honors white school, and then there’s the other school.”  Or, as Richard, a high-achieving white student, speculated, “I mean if you look at the numbers, I’m betting there are more white kids that are in the honors classes, and more black kids that are in minority classes.”

Being placed in the “honors white school” or “minority classes” has multiple consequences. For example, high-track classes are the most advantaged locations for learning. They are taught by the most qualified teachers and have greater access to the school’s highest-quality instructional resources. The path to these classes is complex, but at least part of the story is the divergent performance expectations students face from the very beginning of their educational careers.

Recent research in social psychology has shown that race is one of few “primary categories,” along with gender and age, that as Cecilia Ridgeway explains in her book Framed by Gender are “used so frequently as to be processed quickly and automatically without the need for conscious thought.” This means that in daily interactions, those present in the exchange automatically get assigned a racial identity. This assignment, however, isn’t neutral.  As Ridgeway explains, that placement also involves a subconscious process whereby “shared cultural stereotypes associated with the categories” are brought to the fore.

And such stereotypes are widespread. According to psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson: “By middle-childhood, most American children have learned that blacks and Latino/as are less intelligent than whites. … Not everyone believes the stereotypes, but most people in the culture are aware of them, targets and nontargets alike. … Knowledge of their content alone can bias perceptions of stereotype targets.” These broader beliefs are part of the racial common sense in Riverview as elsewhere. As Gabe, a white junior at the school, reported to us in an interview, “Usually the perception is … that black people are dumber than white people, and Hispanics are not as smart as everyone else.” Once race has been primed, these shared cultural stereotypes unconsciously begin to shape judgments and behavior, affecting everyday interactions and reinforcing inequality in school.

On a daily basis, black and Latino students have had to contend with and manage the implications of such beliefs. We found, for example, that the school had a pattern of lower performance expectations for black and Latino students. These lower expectations not only put young people academically at risk but force them to expend psychic energy to deal with negative stereotypes and combat these low expectations. Not only are they less likely to get placed in honors and AP courses, but even when they are enrolled in the high tracks, they must contend with regular microaggressions — subtle messages undermining their sense of belonging. These can come in the form of who gets called on, who gets extra time to answer a question, who gets invited to join study groups, when teachers perceive a “B” as good enough and when they perceive a “B” as a sign a student might be slipping. Part of the lesson here is that race shapes how we think about one another whether we want it to, and we have to take extra care to ensure that we are pushing all students to their full potential. Racially segregated tracks at the school were destructive for the way they both echoed and reinforced negative racial stereotypes. But they were also destructive because once tracked into different classes, students’ educational experiences continued to diverge.

Riverview teachers and administrators were aware of how the organization of classes within the school contributed to racially disparate outcomes. They strategized regularly about how to make change. However, another key pattern we found upon studying the school is just how difficult change can be.

Often when people study racial achievement gaps, they focus their attention on those who are on the “bottom” of the gap. But in doing so, we sometimes lose sight of the role that all community members play, particularly how white parents and families might contribute to educational inequalities. Even in communities like Riverview with many middle-class and solidly working-class black families, white families often wield more political and economic power and resources. For example, while the school board has consistently included black representatives, it has always had a white majority. Whites also dominate parent-teacher organizations and wield substantial power over school and district decision making. White families’ greater political and economic power also combines with residential segregation to infuse white social networks with greater weight, better access to and influence over school officials and more information about how to successfully navigate schools.

Amanda E. Lewis is director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, an associate professor in the Departments of Sociology and African American Studies and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While rarely organized explicitly along racial lines, these families’ greater influence has in recent years played a very clear role in district efforts to ameliorate achievement gaps. Specifically, white parents have pushed back against many of the district’s proposed policy changes, in large part because current arrangements are serving their children quite well. Their opposition takes many forms, including threatening to leave the school or district, direct advocacy of administrators and internal white flight into subjects or classes that remain tracked.

Cumulatively these families’ advocacy for what’s best for their children often leaves other children with less. One lesson here is that school districts wanting to change policy in order to narrow achievement gaps will need to convince a wide range of stakeholders that such efforts are not a zero-sum game and work to get the larger community to buy into the common interest of everyone doing well.  Or they will have to proceed in the face of steep opposition. We cannot necessarily expect parents to be a force for educational equity. In the end, it is still the school’s job to advocate for practices that serve all children equally and well.

Separate from the political challenges, another barrier to addressing education inequality in schools like Riverview is our general incompetence with talking about race these days. Conversations about school change, racial achievement gaps and inequality all require that we venture into territory most would rather avoid. In fact, many people today insist that they are color-blind and that our society is “post-race.” While seemingly, at best, progressive and at worst, benign, these claims of color-blindness or “post-racialness” are deeply corrosive to our ability to attend to racial matters.

If we truly want race to matter less, to play less of a role in young people’s educational trajectories, we have to be willing to talk about it more — to have honest and full conversations about all the ways it continues to matter. Even in places like Riverview, where almost everyone has good intentions, but where we still have much work to do.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.