What the Increasing Income-Related Achievement Gap Really Means

By Michael Holzman, Senior Research Consultant, The Schott Foundation for Public Education

A recent research report by Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University has received much publicity, including a major article in the New York Times. Reardon found that the achievement gap between children of high- and low-income families is large and growing “and is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Fifty years ago, in contrast, the black-white gap was one and a half to two time as large as the income gap.”

The achievement gap between children of high and low incomes is disturbing and the fact that it is growing is more disturbing yet, but unsurprising: income disparities are growing. The rich, and in particular, the very rich, are becoming richer and other Americans are becoming relatively poorer. It is useful to have the educational implications of this pointed out as, among other things, educational achievement is a prime factor in income mobility. Income increasingly determines residential location and residential location increasingly determines school quality. Education redlining has become widespread: schools serving the children of high income families, even public schools, are simply better than those serving the children of low income families: they have better facilities, higher paid teachers, more challenging curricula.

However, it is unfortunate that the Stanford study is being interpreted as minimizing the racial gap. The contrast between changes in educational achievement based on family income and those based on race is distorted by the beginning date of the data, when the Brown decision had hardly begun to be enforced, distorted also by the accelerating concentrations of wealth and poverty over the past half century.

There is another issue concerning the interpretation of the study: the tendency to neglect the racial basis of poverty (and wealth, for that matter) in America. Disaggregating income data by race clarifies some of the issues raised by the Stanford study.

The following chart shows the gaps in National Assessment of Educational Progress average scale scores between non-Hispanic White students and Black students in Grade 8 Reading in 1998 and 2011. The income measure is eligibility for National Lunch Programs. “Eligible” students are from low income families; “Ineligible” students are not from low income families.

Among students from low income (“eligible”) families, the gap in educational achievement between the races fell 11% (from an 18 point gap to a 16 point gap) between 1998 and 2011. Among students from families not qualifying for National Lunch programs, the gap fell by 21% (from a 24 point gap to a 19 point gap). The racial gap among students from higher-income families was actually wider in 2011 than that for students from low-income families in 1998.

The following chart depicts gaps based on family income within each race.

For White students, the gaps based on income were unchanged between 1998 and 2011, while for Black students the gap between those from families eligible for National Lunch programs, and those not, increased by 27% (from an 11 point gap to a 14 point gap).

According to the US Census, in 2010, 38% of Black children were living in poverty, as compared to 12% of White children. (An increase since 2000 from 33% for Black children and 9% for White children.) The numbers in 2010 were nearly equal: five million White children and 4.8 million Black children living in poverty.

It appears, then, that the increasing gap in educational achievement between children of families living in poverty and those from higher income families is being driven by the increasing gap within the Black community as the percentage of Black children living in poverty increases. Attending “redlined” schools with relatively few highly skilled teachers, with relatively few community supports, often with fathers involved with the “criminal justice system,” with mothers themselves unlikely to be highly educated, Black children living in poverty have less than half a chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty that is increasingly determining their opportunities to learn.