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Cool People You Should Know: Sean Reardon

We know that the average African-American student lags behind the average white student. But until recently, we did not have a clear portrait of the differences between black and white high-achievers in elementary school - a critical pipeline issue in shaping inequality in access to the most coveted colleges, graduate schools, and jobs. Thanks to Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist of education who studies school segregation and the sources of racial/ethnic achievement gaps, we've come a long way.

How does the progress of initially high-achieving black and white students compare as they progress from kindergarten through 5th grade? It turns out that high-achieving black students fall back significantly more than low-achieving black students. For students who start school at the 84th percentile, black-white gaps grow twice as fast as students who start school at the 16th percentile. (See Reardon's paper here.)

The question, then, is why. Reardon suggests a few possible mechanisms, each of which deserve more attention in future research. The first possibility is an outgrowth of racial segregation. The average black high achiever attends school with lower achieving students than the average white high achiever. If teachers teach to the middle, high-achieving black kids may lose out compared to their white peers. A second possibility is that teachers treat black and white low achieving students similarly, but differentiate treatment among high-achieving black and white students. (This seems less plausible to me, but perhaps you have thoughts here.) A third possibility is that the home environments of high-achieving black and white students diverge more than the home environments of low-achieving black and white students.

Kudos to Reardon for putting this issue on the map, and may a thousand dissertations bloom.

Has Reardon considered the impact of peer pressure or society at large (e.g., media messages) on the school performance of African-American students as they progress from elementary through middle school?

In my experience, I think Reardon's first and third theories may have some credence. I agree with you, eduwonkette, that his second theory sounds implausible.

As a former psychology student, I seem to remember that as students age, their families have less of an impact on their decisions, while their peer groups have more of an impact. Any thoughts?

Atty DC:

I think that Ronald Ferguson has done some research that may discount "peer effect." It relates to the "acting white" theory, but, as I recall back students generally reported the same or higher support from peers as white students when it came to achievement goals/expectations. I think that the first theory certainly has a lot of elephants that have to be dealt with before it can be rejected when vestiges of segregation policies and existing defacto levels of segregation are taken into account.

Although I don't know about other states, I do know that the segregation of Black students leads greater difficulty in attracting and retaining well-qualified teachers. Moreover, the disparity between predominantly White and predominantly Black schools grows as students move from elementary school to middle school and then to high school. In my analyses, I found that schools with more than 75% Black students, only 50% of Algebra I teachers were assigned in-field and only 33% of Integrated Physics and Chemistry teachers were assigned in-field. I have no doubt that this negatively impacts Black student achievement and plays a role in the increasing achievement gap that Reardon speaks of.

I'm currently reading "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal" by Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School professor. I believe that a portion of the answer lies in the revelations and insights of that book and any related discussions. History and circumstances have led to the evolution of a group psychology that is very, very complicated.

There's a simple explanation in many cases, I believe: In failing schools, which are marked by disruption, inexperienced teachers, and low test scores, high-achieving kids are what I have described as "not your problem" kids. Since they tend to deliver the test results schools need, teachers are tacitly -- sometimes explicitly -- encouraged to ignore them and focus their energies on lower achievers.

Placing almost exclusive emphasis upon test-score improvement as a basis for rewarding teachers is patently unfair and, when coupled with inadequate performance-appraisal systems, drives teachers toward unethical behavior or departure to other pursuits.

A primary reason the public has not been more supportive of higher funding for education has been the poor relationship between better funding and higher educational quality as revealed by a number of studies.

Use of an appraisal system based upon the following guidelines should go a long way toward turning things around.

Those associated with schools, need to fairly identify true "stars" and "inadequate performers" as one of the bases for:

justifying good pay for outstanding teachers,

providing for self-guidance on the part of newcomers and present staff,

and providing an important basis for terminating those who cannot, or will not, measure up.

Research findings show that evaluators achieve much better agreement about who are Stars and Inadequate Performers than they do about who are Average, Above-Average, and Below-Average performers. Yet, placing individuals in the middle-three categories is a time-consuming, often arbitrary, and resentment-causing activity that most evaluators dislike having to do. Also, clearly, an average performer in a superior organization deserves much more recognition than an average performer in an inferior one. No wonder that many teachers and their unions oppose conventional merit-rating systems!

To avoid a popularity contest, assure greater fairness, and provide for constructive self-guidance, there should be behavioral documentation for both Star and Inadequate Performer nominations via the Critical Incident Technique.
To lay the groundwork for this, students, parents, veteran administrators, and experienced teachers should be polled at to what specific, observable behaviors they associate with outstanding and inadequate performance for each important aspect of a teacher's job.

Then, required behavioral documentation for Star and Inadequate-Performer nominations from fellow teachers, adminstrators, students, and parents should be based upon the most agreed-upon behaviors, and the agreed-to relative weights that should be assigned to these.

The results of this analysis can also constructively guide the initial training and subsequent selection of teachers, as well as, provide a much-needed, qualifying context for the currently over-stressed evaluation factor of test-score-improvement.

This approach also sets the stage for more productive review sessions between the rater and ratee. Since the ratee has a sound basis for self-rating, the session should start with the rater asking "How do you rate yourself for this past period through the presentation of relevant, supporting behaviors?" No rater can be all-knowing, so if behaviors are mentioned that she or he is not aware of, the rater can postpone giving his or her evaluation to provide time to check out the validity of the assertions, if this seems necessary.

A sound behavioral basis for rating also facilitates the use of motivational goal setting during the review session. For example, if the ratee wants to be a Star, what specific behavioral goals does she or he plan to adopt by such and such a time? If stardom is not the goal, which specific, Inadequate Performer behaviors will he or she need to avoid?
This approach permits a rater to be more of a counselor and coach, than one who appears to sit in arbitrary judgment.

For discussion of relevant research and related citations, see: "Improving Performance Appraisal Systems" by William M. Fox, NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW, Winter 1987-88, pages 20-27.

William Fox
[email protected]
Professor Emeritus
Department of Management
University of Florida
(352) 376-9786

If sociologists could get over their phobia of DNA then perhaps the world would make a little more sense to them.

We know that the heritability of intelligence increases as one progresses through childhood.

We know that intelligence influences socioeconomic status.

We know that intelligence influences school performance.

When high performance is measured in kindergarteners they are still at a stage of life where their environment has a strong influence on their performance. These children, both white and black, are more likely to arrive at school having been raised in an enriched environment. Their parents are more likely to be college educated and in a higher socioeconomic class than the parents of their average performing peers.

So what plausible mechanism could explain the greater rate of fallback experienced by high performing black kindergarteners?

Jensen hit this topic back in the sixties. Here is more recent research:

For any trait, scores should move toward the average for that population. So in the United States, genetic theory predicts that the children of Black parents of IQ 115 will regress toward the Black IQ average of 85, whereas children of White parents of IQ 115 will regress toward the White IQ average of 100. Similarly, children of Black parents of IQ 70 should move up toward the Black IQ average of 85, whereas children of White parents of IQ 70 should move up toward the White IQ average of 100. This hypothesis has been tested and the predictions confirmed. Regression would explain why Black children born to high IQ, wealthy Black parents have test scores 2 to 4 points lower than do White children born to low IQ, poor White parents (Jensen, 1998b, p. 358). High IQ Black parents do not pass on the full measure of their genetic advantage to their children, even though they gave them a good upbringing and good schools, often better than their own. (The same, of course, applies to high IQ White parents.) Culture-only theory cannot predict these results but must argue that cultural factors somehow imitate the effect theoretically predicted by genetic theory, which have also been demonstrated in studies of physical traits and in animals.

Jensen (1973, pp. 107–119) tested the regression predictions with data from siblings (900 White sibling pairs and 500 Black sibling pairs). These provide an even better test than parent– offspring comparisons because siblings share very similar environments. Black and White children matched for IQ had siblings who had regressed approximately halfway to their respective population means rather than to the mean of the combined population. For example, when Black children and White children were matched with IQs of 120, the siblings of Black children averaged close to 100, whereas the siblings of White children averaged close to 110. A reverse effect was found with children matched at the lower end of the IQ
scale. When Black children and White children are matched for IQs of 70, the
siblings of the Black children averaged about 78, whereas the siblings of the
White children averaged about 85. The regression line showed no significant
departure from linearity throughout the range of IQ from 50 to 150, as predicted by genetic theory but not by culture-only theory.

This research is well known and replicated. There is no excuse to avoid mention of it in this paper.

Then… there is this opinion from Richard E. Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, published in the NY Times on 12/9/07 (“All Brains Are the Same Color”)

“In fact, the evidence heavily favors the view that race differences in I.Q. are environmental in origin, not genetic.

The hereditarians begin with the assertion that 60 percent to 80 percent of variation in I.Q. is genetically determined. However, most estimates of heritability have been based almost exclusively on studies of middle-class groups. For the poor, a group that includes a substantial proportion of minorities, heritability of I.Q. is very low, in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent, according to recent research by Eric Turkheimer at the University of Virginia. This means that for the poor, improvements in environment have great potential to bring about increases in I.Q.

In any case, the degree of heritability of a characteristic tells us nothing about how much the environment can affect it. Even when a trait is highly heritable (think of the height of corn plants), modifiability can also be great (think of the difference growing conditions can make).”

He continues:

“Why rely on such misleading and indirect findings when we have much more direct evidence about the basis for the I.Q. gap? About 25 percent of the genes in the American black population are European, meaning that the genes of any individual can range from 100 percent African to mostly European. If European intelligence genes are superior, then blacks who have relatively more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s than those who have more African genes. But it turns out that skin color and “negroidness” of features — both measures of the degree of a black person’s European ancestry — are only weakly associated with I.Q. (even though we might well expect a moderately high association due to the social advantages of such features).
During World War II, both black and white American soldiers fathered children with German women. Thus some of these children had 100 percent European heritage and some had substantial African heritage. Tested in later childhood, the German children of the white fathers were found to have an average I.Q. of 97, and those of the black fathers had an average of 96.5, a trivial difference.”


“Most tellingly, blood-typing tests have been used to assess the degree to which black individuals have European genes. The blood group assays show no association between degree of European heritage and I.Q. Similarly, the blood groups most closely associated with high intellectual performance among blacks are no more European in origin than other blood groups.

The closest thing to direct evidence that the hereditarians have is a study from the 1970s showing that black children who had been adopted by white parents had lower I.Q.’s than those of mixed-race children adopted by white parents. But, as the researchers acknowledged, the study had many flaws; for instance, the black children had been adopted at a substantially later age than the mixed-race children, and later age at adoption is associated with lower I.Q.

A superior adoption study — and one not discussed by the hereditarians — was carried out at Arizona State University by the psychologist Elsie Moore, who looked at black and mixed-race children adopted by middle-class families, either black or white, and found no difference in I.Q. between the black and mixed-race children. Most telling is Dr. Moore’s finding that children adopted by white families had I.Q.’s 13 points higher than those of children adopted by black families. The environments that even middle-class black children grow up in are not as favorable for the development of I.Q. as those of middle-class whites.”


“That environment can markedly influence I.Q. is demonstrated by the so-called Flynn Effect. James Flynn, a philosopher and I.Q. researcher in New Zealand, has established that in the Western world as a whole, I.Q. increased markedly from 1947 to 2002. In the United States alone, it went up by 18 points. Our genes could not have changed enough over such a brief period to account for the shift; it must have been the result of powerful social factors. And if such factors could produce changes over time for the population as a whole, they could also produce big differences between subpopulations at any given time.

In fact, we know that the I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped to 9.5 points from 15 points in the last 30 years — a period that was more favorable for blacks in many ways than the preceding era. Black progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows equivalent gains. Reading and math improvement has been modest for whites but substantial for blacks.

Most important, we know that interventions at every age from infancy to college can reduce racial gaps in both I.Q. and academic achievement, sometimes by substantial amounts in surprisingly little time. This mutability is further evidence that the I.Q. difference has environmental, not genetic, causes. And it should encourage us, as a society, to see that all children receive ample opportunity to develop their minds.”

Pondoora: I'm intrigued by the ASU finding you cite in which children adopted by white families had IQ's that were 13 point higher than children adopted by black families. What do you think caused this difference in the two groups of children?

Attorney DC: It was not me, but author Nisbett who cited the study by Elsie Moore and then added, “The environments that even middle-class black children grow up in are not as favorable for the development of I.Q. as those of middle-class whites.”

The research of Dr. Moore is discussed in "Beginnings: The Social and Affective Development of Black Children" by Margaret Beale Spencer, et al. A 10-page excerpt can be found at Google Books and it says, “The child-rearing attitudes and practices of interest were the adoptive mothers’ attitudes towards independence training and the development of achievement orientations in their children.” I'm so intrigued by what else might be in the book that I’m looking for a copy of it now.

Not related to I.Q. but to other outcomes of parenting, the findings of researcher John Ogbu unleashed a lot of fury. For example, he discovered that “…black parents are less likely to reinforce high expectations than are white parents at a similar income level.” (Rothstein, “Class and Schools”)

Whenever we might be willing to consider these, and other, subtle ethnic differences (and those yet to be explored) – along with the effect produced by the Black community’s extremely strict protocol of racial loyalty and taboos about what constitutes racial treason, i.e. “selling out” (read Kennedy’s book by the same name) – then we might begin to understand the depth of this entire issue.

Then… there is this opinion from Richard E. Nisbett

Opinions in newspapers don't carry much weight compared to peer review studies that survive replication.

Reardon is asking what could possibly be causing the phenomena he highlights. Regression to the mean is a well understood biological phenomena. It applies to height, to weight, to intelligence and to scores of other attributes. It's seen in animal studies as well as human studies. Sociologists pretending DNA doesn't exist just make themselves look silly by ignoring models that can offer insight into the problems they study. If Reardon doesn't believe that regression to the mean is applicable to the questions he's addressing then he needs to tackle the issue and show why it's not applicable. Ignoring issues while in search of the all powerful environmental model that will revolutionize the field of education does a disservice to scholarship.

TangoMan: Are you really quoting Jensen's much maligned findings from the sixties? Or his head measuring-influenced work in the nineties? You gotta be kidding, man!

Schools that enroll a high percentage of middle-class to affluent white & Asian kids are significantly more likely to provide specialized programs for gifted students than schools enrolling mostly poor African-American & Latino kids. I don't know how much can be attributed to parental pushiness and how much can be attributed to "the soft bigotry of low expectations". But whatever the reason for the disparity, it's got to be a factor in the achievement gap between bright white and minority kids.

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