Saturday, April 30, 2005

'Skill Gap' Between Races Stagnant

The gap is in the news again. ASCD has pretty extensive/scholarly coverage of this on their wesite. Check out both Part I and Part II in order to look at causes and strategies for closing it, respectively. This is a rather comprehensive examination. The piece below focuses on the Black-White Achievement Gap. The economist doesn't connect up any of this to either NCLB or what I call Texas-style accountability (which would have been logical since NCLB is based on the Texas experience). For resources that make these connections the gap and current policy, check out Many Children Left Behind or my book, titled Leaving Children Behind. Economists typically can only go so far with their analyses.


April 28, 2005
BY KATE N. GROSSMAN, Chicago Sun Times

The achievement gap between blacks and whites has stayed the same since 1990, and absent significant changes, the gulf could persist for much of the 21st century, according to new research by a University of Chicago economist.

This is in contrast to much of the 20th century, when the national achievement or "skill gap" between white and black students and young adults -- as measured by test scores, years of schooling and graduation rates -- decreased sharply.

"There are all kinds of things that could happen in the coming decades that could get us back on course, but if we extrapolate the current trends, things look really bleak," said Derek Neal, whose research will be published in the fall in the Handbook of Economics of Education. "We can't wait around and hope things get better."

Neal documented how the gap didn't narrow in the 1990s, and even grew slightly, and showed how African-American youth in urban centers lost significant ground relative to white students in test scores during the 1980s and 1990s.

Chicago statistics

In Chicago, for example, racial gaps in graduation rates increased between 1991 and 2001, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Between 1997 and 2004, the gap in reading and math scores also widened, a consortium analysis found. The consortium wasn't involved with Neal's study.

Neal laid out several variables that could explain these trends, though he did not endorse any theory. The factors disproportionately affected black parents and children starting in the 1980s.

These include dropping employment rates and wages for low-skilled workers, growing prison rates for black males, the crack epidemic, differences in black and white investments in their children and how they parent.

By 2000, for example, about half of the black males between 26 and 35 who dropped out of high school weren't working, and a quarter were institutionalized, usually in prison. Neal also reported a dramatic rise in mothers who never married among blacks with no postsecondary schooling between 1980 and 1990, as well as a drop in earnings for black parents of preschool kids. In 1980, blacks earned 68 percent as much as whites. By, 2000, it was 56 percent.

"What we have in the 1990s is very little progress in test scores and educational attainment for young [black] adults, who were born in the 1980s, in the middle of that chaos," Neal said. "I have no proof that the two are connected. What I do know is that I have identified in gory detail that there is a problem."

On a national test, black 9- and 13-year-olds made striking gains in reading and math from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, but then the gap stopped closing.

Family resources in a child's early years are especially crucial, Neal notes, because black children typically start first grade significantly behind whites.

In his paper, which culled data from the census, national labor and education statistics and from other researchers, Neal explores whether differing investments by blacks and whites in their young children are driven simply by economics and time or also by cultural norms.

Early teaching strategy

One tool Neal highlights to help reverse the current trend is quality early childhood education, an intervention well-established by research. The Chicago public school system, for example, has an academic-based preschool program that includes classes for parents at its "Child-Parent Centers."

A University of Wisconsin researcher, who wasn't profiled by Neal, has followed for nearly 20 years the low-income, mostly black kids who went to one of the centers in the 1980s. He found higher high school graduation rates, lower juvenile arrest rates and more total years of schooling than for kids in other preschool programs.

President Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which measures schools based on the performance of all subgroups, including blacks, was passed in large part to help close achievement data. Neal's data aren't relevant because they largely end in 2000.

Neal and colleagues who reviewed his work said they hope the trend since 1990 is only an aberration.

"There are a lot of things from the 20th century that I don't plan for the 21st, like Jim Crow and other things that retarded progress," said Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist. "I'm actually quite optimistic that we'll achieve parity. . . . But it's not crazy to look at those numbers and say [the gap could persist well into the 21st century]. Only time will tell."

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company


  1. Economic Impact of a Stagnant Skill Gap

    Steve Murdock, the Texas State Demographer, revealed in 2003 that Texas will experience a substantially greater demographic shift than he originally anticipated in 1997. Expecting a faster rate of increase, Hispanics will add to the 6.6 million Texans (aged 18-64) in 2000. As a result, Hispanics will become the largest race/ethnic group (42.4% est.) in the state sometime before 2020. The significance to the Texas economy is that Hispanics will overtake Anglos as the majority of the workforce-aged population in less than fifteen years. However, the workforce of tomorrow will be less prepared for college and skilled labor. In younger populations (aged 0-14), Hispanics are already the largest share of young Texans. Less than half of all Hispanics in Texas graduate from high school. And, Texas ranks 48th nationwide in converting its 9th graders into college graduates. Not surprisingly, Texas minority families earn about 55 cents for every dollar a White family earns. State and local leaders must do a better job of supporting Hispanics in the Texas education system. The disparities in education translate into a poorer, less-prepared workforce for Texas and reduced lifetime earnings for Hispanic families. Over a 40-year career, each minority family earns one million dollars less than their Anglo counterparts (2004 dollars). Consequently, Texas Hispanics (and Blacks) are overwhelmingly disadvantaged in affording a college education.

    But, if the rate of college completion among Hispanics does not improve, the state’s economy will sour from the growing skilled labor shortages. Social disparities, if ignored or taken too lightly, can threaten Texas productivity and growth, diminishes the state’s competitive edge in the global marketplace, and divides the cohesiveness of the “friendship” state. Labor and skill shortages both hurt businesses and families by creating a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots. In the end, Texas cannot afford the mounting deficit in workers, skills and wages. State policymakers need to reprioritize policies from decreasing tax collections to targeting gaps in the workforce. An unfinished education may cost Texas roughly between $114 billion and $174.2 billion in lost earnings over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, higher education in Texas which receives about $6 billion annually in state general revenue and local property taxes and returns $5.50 to the Texas economy on every dollar invested. Texas should reevaluate statewide priorities and help more families afford a college education, it makes economic sense. Tax relief may save a few hundred dollars for today’s affluent Texas residents, but everyone in the state stands to lose billions in lost wages and opportunity costs with an undereducated workforce. According to the Rand Corporation, today’s college graduating rates of Hispanics will require a 40% increase in available financial assistance to Hispanic students by 2010. Unmet needs are estimated to average more than $3,800 for students of low-income families. Thus, Texas needs to support more (not less) Hispanic (and Black) families affording college tuition and expenses. The economic future of the state depends on increasing the number of Texans getting a college education. Texas is not just stagnating on workforce skills, its losing valuable ground (ironically) to ignorant policymakers.

  2. The only agreed position that I share with economist, Derek Neal is the importance and necessity of quality early education and its availability to all regardless of class or wealth. In failing to realize and address this basic fact, society is prohibiting our youth to succeed and compete in this ever changing and diversified world. Neal notes that on a national level, educational attainment in the math and science scores of black children from ages of 9- and 13-year-olds made striking gains from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, but then the gap stopped closing. This illustration of segmented assimilation is not even noted, nor were the similarities which exist currently along the border regions, questioned. As is the present case in Texas, disparities across generations subsist within the Mexican American population. Once again, educational attainment steadily increases from the first to second generation then tapers off in the third generation. Why is it then that minorities of color endure similar barriers that perpetuate social immobility? Today, it seems as though the term ‘minority’ exists as a mere distinction in class, not as an explanation of numbers. Policy makers invalidate the importance of education when they persue policies that benefit themselves only. Our perturbation then is not the persistence of a “skill gap” but rather, a “class gap” that stands to separate and divide us by a lack of recognition and perhaps understanding. Blinded almost, the general population is fed distorted dialogue, justified then passed down the latter from hands of our elected but rarely effected officials.
    I disagree with Neal and his colleagues in their belief that the future trends will surely change and that we will “achieve parity”. The perpetual denial and inability to promote change only provokes ignorance and its desire to stagnate future visions and perceptions. Today, even though Texas now ranks fifty in its current high school graduation rates, we have managed to push this educational system of accountability, as also known as the No Child Left Behind Act, across the nation, compounding and effecting the lives of each and every child in this great nation. Where then is this accountability, that owed to our children? In not forgetting that the future advancement of each generation depends on the success of our latter, I am weary in adopting and promoting an educational model that measures academic achievement and scholastic ability to repetitive standardized testing. Machine like, especially in dispense, these tests have turned our classrooms into uniformed, factory-like institutions, barring the essence of creativity and equating knowledge to repetitive monotony. I must say that I question the integrity of a state that supports policies which give tax breaks that benefit mainly the rich, while raising the tuition at every college and university to fund them. How can we justify this? Today we are in desperate need of a radical education reformation. I fear though that apathy and ignorance will deter this need and this time, it is our children that must face the consequences of our actions… or rather inactions.