Results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” showed incremental growth from findings two years earlier in both reading and math. However, the persistent and noticeable achievement gap between people of color and Whites offset any encouragement one could get from the modest academic gains.
After more than a decade of school reform, why hasn’t the stubborn gap closed? What’s missing? The opportunity for significant educational improvement may be had outside the schoolhouse and in the community. When will we learn that education reform absent of a jobs program is like corn flakes without the milk?
In a measured statement from the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan said, “The 2013 NAEP report card provides encouraging but modest signs of progress in reading and math for U.S. students.” The statement pressed to find silver linings. Duncan cited the findings that showed gains among Hispanics and states that adopted Common Core Standards.
While Asians, Blacks, Latinos and Whites all improved in Reading and Math over the last 23 years, the Black-White achievement gap has been stubbornly constant over the last decade. In both Reading and Math, Blacks have trailed Whites by a similar margin since Nelly dropped Country Grammar in 2000. These gaps persisted during the same period that witnessed the emergence of No Child Left Behind, the rise of charter schools, voucher programs and Teach for America as well as the Race to the Top competition. In addition to racial achievement gaps, the NAEP results drew an academic Mason Dixon Line. The South contrasted the North by generally posting below average test scores.
Education reformers are scratching their heads searching for answers that poor people already have – income and wealth matter.
Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University conducted a meta-analysis of nationally representative studies that generally found that as the gap between high- and low-income families widened, the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened. Simultaneously, the Black-White achievement gap is closing when studies account for income. The research concluded that families with greater resources are investing more into their children’s cognitive development.
The study’s most important contribution is probably the finding that family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement. This really isn’t surprising for those who do research on these matters, and it’s certainly not surprising if you stare poverty in the face. Over the last 60 years income and wealth remain some of the strongest predictors of academic success.
The Pew Research Center reported that the median wealth of White households is 20 times that of Black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households based on 2009 data. This has tremendous implications in school reform debates. In many cities, the contentious battle over charter schools and school takeovers fall along the wealth gap, which happens to be racialized. White, out-of-town reformers are increasingly taking higher shares of middle-class education jobs. If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, communities of color must be able to literally work their way towards closing it.
After years of locating achievement gaps and implementing school-based reforms, the country is facing some undeniable truths: We can deepen our understanding of a problem and not necessarily make communities better. We can make people smarter, and not necessarily give people jobs. We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more equitable.
School reform is certainly necessary, but if we truly want to eliminate the gap, we must look for reforms outside of the schoolhouse.