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Income More Important Than Race in Achievement Gap

Why it should be front-page news that income plays a more important role than race in the academic achievement gap is beyond me ("Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say," The New York Times, Feb. 10). Studies have consistently shown that poverty is the single most important out-of-school factor in predicting student performance. In 2010, for example, The Century Foundation found that socioeconomic obstacles are seven times as large as those associated with race in performance on the SAT (Rewarding Strivers, Century Foundation Press).

But I suppose we should be grateful that the subject is given such prominence. After all, critics insist that any such explanation is nothing but an excuse. They minimize the implications for schools that more than one in five children now live in poverty. This is almost a ten percent increase over 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To put this data into human terms, the increase brings the total number to 15.5 million children. As a result, the U.S. retains the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, according to UNICEF. Only Mexico has a higher rate, but I don't consider it to be industrialized in the way the term is conventionally used.

Although the academic achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed somewhat over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has substantially widened during the same period. That should come as no surprise because "from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in incomes went to the richest 1 percent" ("Our Banana Republic," The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2010). Children in this stratified group and in groups a few rungs below have advantages that children of the poor can only dream about. The extent of the chasm was the subject of a double issue in The Nation ("Inequality In America," July 19/26, 2010).

Recognizing the link between income and learning, the Wake County Public School System, the nation's 18th largest, implemented a system of socioeconomic integration in 2000 ("Seeking Integration, Whatever the Path," The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2011). The goal was to assure that all schools in the county had a mix of students from rich to poor. Specifically, the mix would be 60-40 (60 percent who did not qualify for subsidized lunches and 40 percent who did). But when a conservative slate was elected to the school board, the plan was abandoned in favor of integration based on achievement. No school was allowed to have a disproportionate number of failing students.

It's still too soon to know what the result of the latest social engineering strategy will be. But I doubt there will be much difference between integration by socioeconomics and integration by achievement. That's because they're inextricably linked. It's more than coincidence that almost all of the 5,000 chronically failing schools in the country are located in the inner cities and in rural areas where poverty is ubiquitous.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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