For nearly a quarter of a century education policy has focused on closing the achievement gap between traditionally disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. During this time period there have been numerous studies focused on quantifying such gaps and identifying the causes in the hopes that such findings will enable policymakers to make informed decisions about policies to narrow such gaps. Yet, the impact of the racial composition of schools on the achievement gap has not garnered much attention from researchers.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sheds new light on this important topic. Specifically, the report asks the question: Does the percent of black students enrolled in a school impact the achievement gap between black and white students? Sounds like a straightforward question but the answer is far from clear as you will see. Specifically the report found:
- White students attend school with few black students.
- White students attend schools whose enrollment is typically 9 percent black
- Black student attend schools whose enrollment is typically 48 percent black
- Schools with the densest enrollment of black students—schools whose enrollment is between 60 and 100 percent black—were mostly likely to be found in the south and in large cities.
- Both black and white 8th grade students who were enrolled in high black student density schools scored lower on the NAEP math assessment than those enrolled in low black density schools- 0 to 20 percent black enrollment.
- The achievement gap between black and white students did not significantly differ depending on the black student density of the school.
- Gaps narrowed between black and white students when researchers took into account the student’s socioeconomic status, and other student, teacher, and school characteristics but large gaps still remained.
- Gaps were largest in the highest black student density schools than the lowest black student density schools even when taking other student and school characteristics into account.
- The black/white achievement gap has more to do with differences within schools than differences between them.
So what exactly do these finding tell us? For one, they tell us that even though Brown v Board of Education was decided over 60 years ago black students still tend to go to school with mostly black students and white students tend to go to school with mostly white students. Second, even though math scores for both white and black students tend to decrease as the proportion of black students in schools increase, the achievement gap remains basically the same. Third, when comparing similar students attending similar schools the achievement gap widens as the share of black students enrolled in a school increases. Finally, although differences between schools, such as funding, contribute to the achievement gap, differences within a school contribute more to perpetuating gaps.
What does this mean for policymakers? There are no clear answers but focusing on desegregating schools would be a step in the right direction, although it isn’t nearly enough to close achievement gaps. The same can be said about ensuring there is an equitable distribution of funding and quality teachers among schools. While important, this report shows that such resources should be distributed more equitably within a school to improve the performance of its black students and close achievement gaps.
The report doesn’t provide clear cut answers on how to close the achievement gap, but it does provide ample evidence that students, both black and white, who attend schools that predominately enroll black students are not receiving the same education as their peers that attend schools who enroll mostly white students. In addition, no matter the racial makeup of the school, black students are not achieving the same level as their white peers. How resources are distributed within the school can go a long ways to narrow that gap. – Jim Hull