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Achievement Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Unchanged After 50 Years, Study Says

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By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones

Contrary to other research, the socioeconomic achievement gap has remained unchanged over the past 50 years, according to a new study published by Education Next.

The study examined test scores of 13- to 17-year-olds born in the United States between 1954 and 2001 acquired from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and the Program for International Student Assessment.

The test scores were matched with data on parents' education and items in the home, such as books, cars, and computers, rather than income, to get a sense of families' socioeconomic status. 

For students born in 1954, the achievement gap between the average of those in the top and bottom 10 percent of the socioeconomic distribution was slightly less than 1.2 standard deviations. For those born in 2001, the gap has only slightly narrowed to about 1.05 standard deviations.

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The study also found that student achievement overall has increased little from generation to generation. While students at age 14 show an overall achievement increase of approximately 0.08 standard deviations per decade, gains among students at age 17 amount to only 0.02 standard deviations per decade. Additionally, there was no improvement in older students after the 1970 birth cohort.

While the study found no shrinking in the achievement gap between wealthy and less wealthy students, it did find a decline in the size of the white/black achievement gap, specifically following movements toward school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Education has always been viewed as the route to upward mobility for the disadvantaged, and when it's not playing that role, I think that's an indictment of the education system itself," Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said of the persistent socioeconomic achievement gap. She spoke while on a panel organized by the Hoover Institution on the study.

However, Sawhill did not place all the blame on schools. Other factors, such as the increase in the numbers of single-family households and widening of wage gaps between upper-income households and middle- and lower-income households may also neutralize the progress.

The study also said that inequities in teacher quality may offset benefits from federal programs designed to target low-income students, as the schools serving those student populations tend to have less experienced teachers than schools in wealthier communities.

"I think we've chosen a bad equilibrium, where in fact we pay little and we get little, or don't get as much as much as we should be getting," said Eric Hanushek, the study's co-author and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  

Hanushek also referenced another study of his, which found that U.S. teachers are paid 22 percent less than comparably experienced and skilled college graduates doing other jobs.

"We all work in this space because we think schools should be engines of equality," said Emma Vadehra, the executive director of Next100 and former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama's administration. "We all believe teachers are the most important in-school factor, and then we constantly tinker around the edges around this core question that research and common sense tells us, which is that increased salaries boost teacher retention, increased salaries get a different set of people into the classroom, and in our regular lives, we know salaries matter."

To close the achievement gap, the study advised policymakers to focus on teacher quality, as well as learning at the high school level.

The study findings run counter to other research, including some by Sean Reardon, of Stanford Graduate School of Education, which found that the socioeconomic achievement gap has grown significantly over the past three decades. Reardon used family income and student scores on standardized tests from other studies, including the National Education Longitudinal Study, for his research. 

Graphs courtesy of Education Next

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