Income, segregated schools drive black-white education gaps, study finds – University of Michigan News | Team Cansler

Given the same hardships in family, school and neighborhoods, black students were more likely than their white classmates to graduate from high school and attend college — reversing current disparities, new research from the University of Michigan and Cornell University finds.

Accounting for the unequal contexts in which black and white children grow up and go to school also significantly reduces the disparity in test scores — by more than 60%, according to the study, which followed nearly 130,000 Michigan students from kindergarten through enrollment in college accompanied.

“Our analysis reveals a stark divide in the social origins of black and white children coming of age in the early 21st century — and the toll this divide takes through educational inequality,” the authors write.

Katherine Michelmore, associate professor of public policy at UM’s Ford School of Public Policy, co-authored the study with Peter Rich, assistant professor of sociology and demographer at Cornell’s Brooks School of Public Policy. It’s coming to Social Forces this month.

Sociologists and policymakers have long attempted to assess the extent to which family background, school quality, and neighborhoods all contribute to educational differences.

Michelmore and Rich’s study updates this understanding of the No Child Left Behind era by tracking students who were fully educated after the passage of the 2001 law, which focuses on school accountability and choice. Michigan offers an ideal case study, they said, because its students reflect the nation’s demographics and could be followed over 16 years, from 2002 to 2018.

The authors were granted restricted access to student records through a partnership with the Michigan Education Research Initiative and the Michigan Department of Education.

The students’ entitlement to subsidized lunches was a measure of the family’s economic hardship. About half of all white students have been disadvantaged at some point, compared to more than 90% of black students. The researchers also created indices of school and neighborhood disadvantage, including factors such as the percentage of low-income students in a school and average scores on eighth and eleventh grade math tests, or a neighborhood’s poverty and unemployment rates.

Accounting for disadvantage in each context over time, the researchers found that family resources explain by far the largest part of the educational gaps between blacks and whites, consistent with previous research.

“This finding implies that material differences in the contexts inherited by black and white children — rather than individual efforts — drive the large educational gaps we observe,” they wrote. “These trends have continued in the recent era of federal accountability reforms.”

After family background, Michelmore and Rich found that schools — especially those that are highly segregated due to systemic inequalities in wealth and housing — are “consistent” and disproportionately disadvantage black students over an extended period of time.

“The findings of our study support raise concerns that schools are exacerbating inequality between blacks and whites,” they write, countering recent debates that suggest neighborhood context primarily drives differences in student outcomes.

When they controlled for all three contexts together, the researchers found that gaps of nearly 13% in high school graduation and 17% in college enrollment were not only eliminated but reversed, and the differences in test scores were dramatically reduced.

Strengthening these findings, they said, is a longitudinal method that more accurately captures the impact of economic hardship on students’ careers through college. Researchers typically rely on data reported for a single year, they said, which may obscure the distinction between students who are eligible for subsidized lunches, consistently, sporadically, or never.

“If you look at just one snapshot, you’re missing out on the true portrait of a college student’s family’s economic plight,” said Rich, a faculty member at Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality. “This is especially important for issues related to racial inequality, since black children are more likely to live in economic difficulties for longer periods of time.”

Michelmore finds that children growing up in poverty are less likely to attend college, regardless of race, but black children are four times more likely to experience chronic economic hardship than white children. This explains why we find this reversal of the enrollment gap when considering different degrees of severity.

“As educational researchers, we often have limited information available to us, but part of what we wanted to show here is that you can be a little creative with the data you have — while considering the economics of.” Children harden over time, for example, and it can make a big difference in outcomes,” she said.

The authors say their analysis points to the need for complex policy solutions that address systemic injustices. Despite decades of purportedly racially neutral policies, they concluded, educational disparities between blacks and whites persist because of a long history of racial exclusion that has limited black Americans’ access to home ownership, high-performing schools, college degrees and high-paying jobs.

“We underscore the relevance of this study to renewed attention to systemic racism as an urgent crisis,” they write. “Our findings reinforce the argument that uprooting systemic racism requires an ongoing engagement with how this history distorts black and white childhood opportunities.” The research was funded in part by the Cornell Population Center and the Center for Aging and Policy Studies , a consortium based at Syracuse University.

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