Starting equal, falling behind

Black and white kindergarteners from similar socioeconomic backgrounds start kindergarten with virtually equal reading and math skills, say two researchers writing in Education Next. But, by end of first grade, the black students have fallen behind. Hispanic kindergarteners start out behind but catch up to whites of similar backgrounds. Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Steven D. Levitt found smaller achievement gaps for children born in the early 1990s compared to earlier cohorts, perhaps indicating “the current cohort of blacks has made real gains relative to whites.”

Once students enter school, however, the gap between white and black children grows, even after controlling for observable influences. We speculate that blacks are losing ground relative to whites because they attend lower-quality schools that are less well maintained and managed as indicated by signs of social discord.

The fall issue also has critical articles on technology by Frederick Hess, (also linked here) and Lowell Monke.

Also read about attracting better teachers and how detracking has gone off track: Most high schools still offer different classes for high-performing and low-performing students, though few are divided into college, general and vocational tracks. Detracking is most common in high-minority, high-poverty schools.

About Joanne


  1. > More educators are now convinced that nearly all students are capable of mastering a challenging curriculum. New academic standards, state tests, and accountability requirements represent an effort to ensure that all students are given access to a rigorous curriculumProposals to use technology to downsize the workforce, alter instructional delivery, or improve managerial efficiency are inevitably attacked by education authorities as part of an effort to, in the words of Henry Giroux, “Transform public education . . . [in order] to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers, and train young people for the low-paying jobs of the new global marketplace.” Proposals to use technology to downsize the workforce, alter instructional delivery, or improve managerial efficiency are inevitably attacked by education authorities as part of an effort to, in the words of Henry Giroux, “Transform public education . . . [in order] to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers, and train young people for the low-paying jobs of the new global marketplace.”

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    “On an emotional level it sends a bad message to the child about their own heritage.” If you come from a family and neighborhood marked by ignorance, irresponsibility and failure, you’d better damned well learn that those qualities are bad if you’re going to have any chance to escape to a better life. It is unnerving that we as a society have gone so far down the road of addressing everything via feel-good euphemisims that we can no longer face such harsh but obvious facts. People like you who think it “abusive” to rescue kids from “cultures” of failure are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    As to the “evil” of tracking, or of selecting promising kids from deprived backgrounds for scholarships- When many people are drowning, you set to work and rescue as many as you can. You don’t refuse to rescue any while insisting that nothing can be done until the ocean has dried up.

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    “More educators are now convinced that nearly all students are capable of mastering a challenging curriculum.” If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. What actually happens in the misguided attempt to make this fantasy come true is the institution of a “challenging” curriculum, dressed up in the latest ed-school buzzword finery, that is actually anything but.

    The real scandal is two- part: 1) that “all students” are not mastering the basics that indeed are within the reach of nearly all of them, and 2) that the raw intellectual talent that clearly is getting born into economically and culturally deprived areas is being wasted instead of being identified and rescued from its dysfunctional surroundings, in part thanks to the people who think that doing so is an “abusive” exercise in “cherry-picking”.

  4. Along with the reasons cited, one reason I personally believe black students are falling behind is the racism of lower expectations. You would not believe how much of a difference it makes if you expect more from them because you respect their minds and talents.

    I had a young lady in one of my expository writing classes go from unable to recognize a complete sentence to earning a B. She said she’d never been expected to work that hard before (even though her white classmates were), and she didn’t know she could.

    If all teachers were suddenly blind to the surface differences in the students (color, regional accent, dialect, etc.), that divide would disappear.

  5. Steve LaBonne says:

    I realize that my comments above are generally negative, so I want to say something about what I’m _for_. I think it’s no accident that many of the most successful inner-city charter schools follow the KIPP model- long school days, discipline and order (not just imposed, but internalized by the kids) as a high priority. Kids from neighborhoods where drug dealers and 30-year-old grandmothers are the norm have to be insulated from those surrounding as much as possible, or they have no chance in life at all. Doing that on any significant scale will be hellaciously expensive. I’m damned if I can think of many more urgent problems on which to spend the money, though.

  6. As more poor black people move into my neighborhood (alas, I was one of the whites who did not flee – now I know why the others did) I can see vividly what the problems are. Mom is shacked up with a series of drug dealers (“stepfathers”) and the kids are responsible for raising themselves. No one should have to live in such an environment. The government needs to pay people to use birth control and not pay them for having kids that they are too irresponsible to care for. Otherwise, the cycle never stops. I was way more liberal before the ghetto moved to my street.

  7. “It appears that the most important thing a school can do is to provide its students with good teachers”

    Duh? Curriculum ranks where? Wouldn’t it be better to have a well designed curriculum with testing so that even average or poor teachers could be monitored and get the job done? I was told by several parents that the public school is OK …”if you get the right teachers”. The point was that they could make up for a BAD CURRICULUM! Of course, parents cannot choose and the schools know darn well who are the good teachers. “Gosh, if only we had ‘good’ teachers!”

    I’ve heard this good teacher argument before. It’s a cop-out and ignores real, underlying problems. Where do these good teachers come from, only Ed Schools?

    “However, in studies published in 1986 and 1999, my colleagues and I found that students assigned to low-ability groups score lower on standardized tests than if they had been placed in mixed-ability or high-ability groups.”

    If the student could do the work in the advanced group why wasn’t he/she put there in the first place? Shouldn’t the student be given that opportunity? Are they saying that all students should be mixed together whether they can make the grade or not? Should the classes be mixed and the expectations lowered just to make everyone feel good and seem the same? Are they saying that a poor student who flunks an advanced course is better off than if he/she got an ‘A’ in a lower ability course? This is a phony issue used as an excuse to get rid of tracking. Some people just don’t like tracking.

    Tracking is not the problem. It is the process of assigning students to different tracks. Perhaps schools should assign all kids to the highest track (honors) and let them flunk themselves down to the proper level. Don’t get me wrong. I think it should be up to the individual student and his/her parents to select the track they want. Isn’t this the way it’s done for high school? If it isn’t, why not? If the lower tracks have the worst teachers, are they magically going to get better teachers if they decide to mix everyone together?

    The anti-tracking crowd, however, sees this as an equality issue, rather than an ability and teaching issue. They don’t want ability tracking even if the track is chosen by the student. They do not want to admit that there can be huge ability differences between students of the same age and that you cannot teach all of these kids in the same way. Ability tracking is not politically correct. They say that all children can master challenging material. They just conveniently forget that the rate of learning is vastly different. Even if they admit that there are vast differences in the ability of students, they philosophically want to do whatever they can to hide that from the kids and everyone else. However, the kids know who’s smart and who’s not. I find it interesting that our school loves to showcase students’ art works and give awards, but they would never dream of doing that for math.

    In our public K-8 schools, they don’t have a TAG program and “we don’t do pull-out” in spite of the fact that the school has very low and fuzzy expectations. No tracking! However, there is tracking by age, but that’s OK. It’s hard for this bunch on one hand to say that all students are equal and each has his/her own strengths and then provide advanced students with what they need. Everything has to be done in full-inclusion, heterogeneous, child-centered groups. Our public school now uses Differentiated Learning, which is a magical way for all students to learn at their own level in mixed ability, student centered groups – thanks to the wonderland philosophies of Ed Schools. By the way, this means no acceleration of curriculum, just enrichment.

  8. While I say that diversity is most important, combined with diversity must be redistribution of wealth.

    Diversity is more important than anything else. If the students learn nothing, but achieve an appreciation for diversity, their lives will be rich. The most diverse environments are those that are most free of majorities. For example, an all black school has achieved maximum diversity. We must teach our children these things, and how to carry them in their hearts.

  9. Oh, brilliant, Bard.

    Make sure there’s a rainbow of pigment hues. But not too many white ones, see, because they’re not ‘diverse’ enough. Make sure they’re aware of all the ‘diversity’ of their peers, even if they can’t read or write or do math.

    Then redstribute wealth from those who work for it down to those who don’t want to work for it. I think they called it ‘communism’.

    By the way, this has been an abject failure everywhere it was tried. The five remaining Communist countries are all on the final downward spiral, held back only by governmental controls and threats of violence.

    Oh, yes. I certainly think these philosophies can solve all our education problems. NOT.

  10. Bard,

    There is nothing stopping you from redistributing your income. Leave mine the hell alone. If I choose to redistribute mine in the future, I’d rather it was my choice.

    Besides, in most cases, your forcibly redistributed income would do the children no good. Their parents would spend it on themselves. I know what I’m talking about: I come from that type of a background. Welfare isn’t really good for anyone. And it’s more off topic than not…

  11. Cognitive dissonance here: Bard MUST be joking…right? I mean, my mind simply refuses to comprehend that there are real people who actually believe such asinine cliches, and would repeat them without a trace of irony.

  12. Steve, I honestly don’t understand how you think you could help someone you don’t like. You see pathetic people with no hope, and envision yourself as fishing the cherries out of the sewer for the marketplace. Did you ever live in a place like the one you describe as a child?

    When people have programs like the ‘Clean Air Society’ or camps that rescue a child for a couple days to someplace they consider better I wonder how much the kids benefit. I’ve always thought we had a need for a ‘Dirty Air Society’. But I don’t want to discredit people who do make progress with the work they do. I would like to point out that statistically kids do very poorly when they are removed from bad families and placed in foster care. Although there are exceptions, most people I’ve know who have grown up under trying circumstances perfer orphanages where they had supportive companions. Most people under stress do bond tightly. Don’t misjudge being hopeful of a better life to the security of knowing the people you love are good.

  13. Mike in Texas says:

    >We speculate that blacks are losing ground relative to whites because they attend lower-quality schools that are less well maintained and managed as indicated by signs of social discord. (from the article)

    That’s quite a leap of speculation

  14. Mike in Texas says:

    I read the article Joanne cites and found many interesting tidbits she left out:

    From the article:

    >On the whole, black children were being reared in circumstances less likely to be conducive to academic achievement than those experienced by white children; in general they have lower socioeconomic status and fewer children’s books in the home, to name just two disadvantages.

    >The number of books in the household is a useful proxy for the home environment’s contribution to academic success. Adjusting the test-score data for this factor reduces the gap even more. On average, black students in the sample had 39 children’s books in their home, compared with an average of 93 books among white students. Taking this difference into account cuts the black-white test-score gap to less than a fourth of a standard deviation in math and completely eliminates the gap in reading

    >those with mothers who were older at the time of their first birth all score better.

    >More important for this analysis, adding these variables to the equation further accounts for the differences between the test scores of whites and those of blacks and Hispanics. In fact, the estimates suggest that black children with characteristics similar to their white peers score slightly better than whites in reading and only slightly worse in math

    If you read only the parts cited by Joanne, or just the title, it would seem the Amercican education system was practicing organized racism. Too bad she didn’t include ALL the facts. But if you read further into the article:

    >If, as some have argued, white teachers have lower expectations for black children, one would predict that black students with white teachers would lose more ground than black students with black teachers. We found that black children who have at least one black teacher start out performing somewhat worse than their white peers in math and slightly better in reading, relative to black students who have no black teachers. By the end of 1st grade, however, the black-white test-score gap is greater for students who have at least one black teacher. This is exactly the opposite of what one would predict from a discrimination story.

    Too bad the authors had to reach such a stupid conclusion, the one Joanne chose to quote (although she left out the part where they admit they have any definitive proof).

  15. How do Asian people manage to embrace US education in spite of the fact they often do not have books written in their native tounge. Even when they are confronted with poverty, marginalizing oppression and language barriers; they succeed in education and employment? Is it the authoritarian sytle of society in Asian countries or perhaps that education is not available for all?

    I thought this editorial was interesting. What are our goals in education? Having a coherent society that works hard or good numbers.

  16. Steve LaBonne says:

    Bluemount, many of the adults ARE beyond help (reread Jane’s comment as a refresher course), as anyone remotely in touch with reality should be aware. It’s the KIDS who must be rescued.

  17. Michelle Dulak says:

    Claire, holly, please reset your satire detectors. Or change the batteries, or something. Yeesh.

    Mike in Texas, if I understand you correctly, you read the study as attributing the skill gap to the childrens’ home environments rather than to the schools’ performance. No doubt that’s part of it. (I was staggered by the children’s book item . . . an average of 93 books per white household? Wow. I don’t remember that growing up. But we did have an encyclopedia, and that kept me plenty busy.)

  18. Researchers cited the parenting issues Mike mentions, but said the evidence supports differences in school quality as part of the explanation for black children falling behind. They said the evidence doesn’t support other theories, though they left it all a bit up in the air. I include these links so readers can use them. I can’t summarize complex articles completely in a few sentences.

  19. You know what it is? What it really is? White people have arranged it so a black child must “act white” to succeed. But black children don’t want to act white. They’re not white, they’re black. They want to act the way they are.
    Stop stacking the deck so black children have to act white to succeed. And stop your own children from listening to hip-hop. It’s not their music, it’s black people’s music. If they keep listening to that music, it’ll rot their brains because it’s not their music. Then where’s the wealth gonna come from for redistribution?
    And don’t give me that “asian children can succeed so why not black children?” Asian children don’t seem to mind acting white, so that doesn’t count. You’re too insensitive.

  20. Joanne Jacobs wrote:

    but said the evidence supports differences in school quality as part of the explanation for black children falling behind…

    Trouble is, even when the data is adjusted for school quality, parental income, parental education level, the achievement gap still exists.

    I’m inclined to think it’s a confluence of several factors.

    There’s an “entitlement” mentality that for base and idealistic reasons seeks to create expectations of special treatement. Affirmative action, welfare and slavery reparations come under this heading. If it’s already owed to you only a fool would work hard to get it.

    Then there’s the implicitly unfavorable comparison that’s inevitable when someone excels. Far better to drag them down, if possible, and hate them, for making you look bad by contrast. That’s where the phrase “acting white” comes from.

    Fortunately though, the continuing failure of both these rationalizations to produce the sorts of results that were promised is undercutting them both.

  21. So long as being smart makes you a traitor to your race, there will be an achievement gap. I’ve tried to convince some of the kids on my street that making good grades now will pay off later but they assure me that the smart kids get beat up. They don’t read at all. They don’t get taken to movies, museums, restaurants or anything but Wal-Mart. These kids worlds are too small to be imaginable. The liberal white people in my city move to the ‘burbs so that their kids can go to school with some blacks but not too many. Watching these kids grow up with no parental guidance and not even much, if any, love is horrifying. Even the three kids I’ve “adopted” by buying them books and taking them to the movies and restaurants (because they would never go otherwise) – it’s too late. They have no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. It is all very sad and frustrating.

  22. Actually, Michelle, I don’t think ‘Bard’ means it as satire. He is either serious and doesn’t realize how wacko his words are, or else he’s a troll.

    On reflection, I vote for troll.

  23. Okay, Bard, once was humorous (I laughed out loud at the “all black = maximum diversity” line), however, the shtick is really only funny the first time. Give it up.

  24. I keep expecting Steve Sailer, racist extraordinaire, to pop up. This would certainly be his ball of wax.

    He’d no doubt point out the black-white-asian IQ gap and then say that perhaps black students are better served by a curriculum suited to their abilities.

    I bring this up because one of the effects of tracking may be to strengthen the arguments of him and his ilk. If 90% of students in poorer socio-economic neighborhoods (which conincidentally enough are largely black) are eventually tracked to a basic curriculum, there’s going to be a pretty strong argument to be made that rather than sacrificing the 90% to allow the 10% to academically prosper, it would make more sense to design a curriculum from the Kindergarten onward specifically for such neighborhoods that is designed to best service the 90% even at the risk of sacrificing the 10%. Better to service the vast majority than a small minority.

    The problem with that approach is that it ends up making a permanent divide, and one that will no doubt infect the society at large. The other danger is that it makes the idea of “spending money where it will do the most good” (i.e. on easy-to-educate cheap students) far too enticing to cash-strapped governments.

    It takes a lot of political will to try and extract good ecducational results from poor neighborhoods. Tracking makes that job much more difficult, if not impossible.

  25. West is most insensitive of all. I’m tempted to wash my hands of the lot of you.
    Who is Steve Sailer? Does he have a web site? I don’t remember seeing him post around here.
    People are worried about making a “permanent divide” between races. That’s really funny. What do you think exists now, Sherlock?
    Some people seem to think blacks are stupid compared to whites and orintals. West reminds me of those people. Very insensitive.

  26. Okay, I can’t even see the attempt at humor in this last post, so I am (God Forbid!) going to treat it as serious.

    Some people seem to think blacks are stupid compared to whites and orintals. West reminds me of those people.

    Yikes. How about know thine enemy? If you don’t know what it is they believe and what their agenda is, then you are doomed to fail.

    For the record, I am against any policy based on an assumption of racial differences. Period. Full stop. This is exactly what Sailer, et al are all about. I believe that such policies would be poisonous to our society and everything it stands for.

    Socio-economic conditions, cultural conditions, and discrimination are more than enough to account for racial based difference in outcomes. Do I believe that nearly all students are capable of mastering a challenging curriculum? Not at this time. There are too many other extra-educational factors that prevent students from fully utilizing their abilities to achieve success, and dealing with the factors is way beyond a mere schools perogative.

    Anyway, after being sidetracked, back to my main thesis: tracking becomes destiny not just for the individual, but for the group.