It Isn’t Race

Tomorrow’s post, accidentally published today. Sorry for cluttering your in-boxes, subscribers…

The Brookings Institution recently published a very interesting study about the persistence of an achievement gap between white and minority students in the nation’s classrooms. The research looked at multi-racial student performance–a population that was rarely studied before increasing rates of intermarriage produced enough children to allow for reliable conclusions.

The study is explained more fully by the linked article, but here are the findings:

  1. Students of multi-racial identity are from families with lower socioeconomic status than whites;
  2. They attend schools that are far more integrated with whites and Asians compared to blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders;
  3. Multi-racial students have the same average test scores as whites on math, science, and writing;
  4. For reading tests, multi-racial students outperform other groups, including Asians; and
  5. These results contradict the controversial hypothesis that between group differences in IQ result from genetic differences between races.

These findings suggest that the race gaps in academic achievement in the United States are the result of inequality, especially in terms of access to educational opportunities, and therefore could be closed under fairer political, social, and economic arrangements.

Reading this research took me back many years, to my undergraduate education classes and the work of a sociologist named William Coleman. In 1966, he published a paper titled Equality of Educational Opportunity (usually referred to as “The Coleman Report”). The study surveyed 600,000 children in 4,000 schools, and its conclusions were unexpected: family income and peer influence were more predictive of children’s school achievement than school funding levels.

Although Coleman discovered that expenditures were not closely related to achievement, the report found that a student’s achievement appears to be “strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of the other students in the school …. Children from a given family background, when put in schools of different social compositions, will achieve at quite different levels.” Writing in The Public Interest, Coleman was even more forceful: “The educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students are more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.” The Coleman Report concluded that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

The conclusions of the Brookings study are consistent with Coleman’s emphasis on the importance of socio-economic integration. And therein lies the problem.

So  many of the issues we expect our public schools to solve are really broader social issues–social disparities that pose barriers to learning. Poverty is obviously the most significant of those barriers, but its effects are multiplied by residential patterns that separate middle and upper-middle class children from poor ones.

The research continues to show that gaps in achievement are not based upon race, but upon the environment within the classroom–an environment dramatically affected by the experiences, expectations and “aspirations” of the children who inhabit it.

The Atlantic recently reported that Coleman’s work was finally getting the attention it deserved.

James Coleman, who died in 1995, never saw the growth of socioeconomic-integration programs. But a half century after publication of his seminal report, school integration by social class is finally getting its proper due.

As the article noted,

Many of the districts pursuing socioeconomic integration are seeing impressive results. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a socioeconomic-integration program was adopted in 2001 and by 2014, 86 percent of low-income students graduated, compared to 65 percent of low-income students in Boston, whose schools are not socioeconomically integrated. Coleman would not have been surprised by the 21-point differential…. Moreover, socioeconomic integration often leads to racial integration, which has powerful benefits, such as reducing bigotry and forging social cohesion.

The research confirms that in education, it’s nurture, not nature.