May 12, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 16

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    Research shows pre-’90s progress in narrowing achievement gap has stalled

    By William Harms
    News Office

    The achievement gap between African Americans and whites, which narrowed for much of the 20th century, has stalled and is likely to persist for generations unless something is done to improve the learning experiences of African-American children, contends new research conducted by Derek Neal, Professor in Economics.

    Neal is the author of “Why Has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped?” to be published later this year in the Handbook of Economics of Education.

    Neal traces the educational progress of African Americans during the 20th century. He argues that the experience of the past 15 years is an ominous departure from the pattern of sustained progress observed throughout most of the 20th century.

    The 1940 Census is the first source of national data on educational attainment, and Neal points out that the black-white education gap among young adults fell steadily from 1940 to 1990. In 1990, however, black-white convergence in educational attainment stopped.

    “Among men and women ages 26 to 30 in 2000, the black-white educational attainment gap is slightly larger than the corresponding gap in 1990,” he said.

    Scores on standardized tests follow a similar pattern. “From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, black children made striking gains in achievement while scores for white children remained relatively flat,” Neal said, but test-score gaps among 9- to 13-year-olds stopped closing in the late 1980s.

    Other measures of trends in educational achievement since 1990 tell the same story. Among 21-year-old black men, high school graduation rates were lower in the late 1990s than they were in the mid-1980s.

    The opposite is true among young white men. Further, the ratio of white-to-black college graduation rates among young adult men rose between 1990 and 2000, after falling for decades.

    Neal argues that these trends are ominous in terms of their implications for overall black-white economic inequality among future generations of adults because education and skills are keys to success in today’s labor market, especially among African Americans. In 1999, for instance, less than half of black men ages 26 to 45 who were high-school dropouts were employed at all during the year. In comparison, about 25 percent of white men without high-school diplomas were not employed. Among college graduates, however, there was little difference in employment rates between whites and blacks.

    “It is clear that the relationship between employment and education is much stronger among black workers than white workers. This also was true in 1980 and 1990, but the strength of the relationship between education and employment rates among black men has grown dramatically over time,” Neal said.

    Neal argues that skill stagnation among black youth and young adults over the past 15 years shatters the optimism that surrounded prior research, which shows black youth and young adults were progressing. Using simulations that he calls “best-case scenarios,” Neal shows how the black-white skill gap can be expected to remain large until late in this century, unless the learning environments of young African-American children can be significantly altered through economic or policy changes.

    Neal draws attention to early learning environments because African-American children begin school well behind their white peers and may continue to fall farther behind in the early grades, though they do not fall farther behind their white peers after elementary school.

    “There is much evidence that changes in government policies, concerning the funding and governance of schools, had contributed in important ways to the relative academic progress of blacks during the 20th century,” he said. Providing similar assistance at the preschool level may help resume the narrowing of the achievement gap between whites and blacks.

    Neal adds that the need for such assistance may be evident in family income data. In 1960, black families with preschool children earned about 52 percent as much as corresponding white families. This situation improved in the 1960s and 1970s, and by 1980, black families with young children received 68 percent as much as white families. However, black family income growth has been anemic since 1980, and in 2000, black preschool children enjoyed family incomes that were only 56 percent of the average family income among their white counterparts.

    Neal argues that now is the time for policy-makers and researchers to focus on the early learning environments of children. Compared to 1980, black families have less time and fewer resources for their preschool children who will one day enter a labor market that offers bleak prospects for people who are not highly skilled.

    Neal closes with this conjecture: “The first generation of black children who enter kindergarten with the same basic language and arithmetic skills as white children may well be the first generation of black adults to enter the labor market on equal footing with their white peers.”