The Achievement gap: Can we force history to repeat itself?

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Last month we were pleased to see an evaluation of Florida's Reading First program, showing big reading gains across the board for students in participating schools. But we were equally frustrated to see that those good results didn't translate into any impact on the racial achievement gap. Black kids' scores went way up, but the White kids matched them point for point.

If a program that clearly works can't move the needle on the achievement gap, what can? Unfortunately, there are few successes, at least in recent history, upon which we can draw.

Accordingly, we seized upon a new ETS paper reviewing the history of the achievement gap, particularly a period in the 1980s when the gap narrowed by roughly 25 percent. Researchers Paul E. Barton and Richard Coley explore some of the more plausible theories behind the 1980s success and also why that progress ended rather abruptly in the 1990s, without having budged much since--in spite of much, much effort.

Given the pressure many educators and politicians feel to make progress on the achievement gap, Barton and Coley's exercise represents risky business, particularly since their paper is directed at policymakers, not more discerning (and hypercritical) academics. Putting a theory out there, however delicately,explaining the success of the 1980s could very well lead to costly, systemic changes urged on by policymakers desperate to replicate that progress.

That's why our eyebrows nearly touched our hairline reading that the theory Barton and Coley find most plausible (see chart) was the big class size reductions that took place throughout that decade.

Given the platform, Barton and Coley understandably don't provide much of the supporting research for this contention, just that the nationwide reduction in class size throughout the 1970s and 80s tracks better than other theories with the increasing achievement levels by Blacks during this same period. They also point to statements by other researchers that Blacks may be more sensitive than Whites to class sizes.

More importantly, though, we don't hear anything about other research that directly contradicts this theory, primarily a 2001 paper by Eric Hanushek, in which he rules class size out rather persuasively (and certainly a lot more scientifically).

In his 2001 paper and since, Hanushek remains convinced that it is desegregation that explains the narrowing of the gap. For the most part, Barton and Coley dismiss desegregation as a major factor, unable to reconcile big regional differences in the rate at which schools desegregated-even though Hanushek clearly accommodates these differences in his own research.


There is, however, quite a compelling section to this paper, addressing the sociological factors which may be neutralizing schools' hard work. Barton and Coley do an impressive job examining highly-charged social issues that often are avoided for fear of offending. Their list is long, depressing and persuasive: too many fatherless families; the plight of so many unemployed and/or imprisoned black males; the growth of "hip hop' culture; an aversion to "acting white"; disparities in net worth and family wealth; the relatively low rate of upward mobility between generations; differences in child rearing practices; and, perhaps most convincingly, the academic consequences reaped on children who have to grow up in high-poverty, blighted neighborhoods.

The authors observe that half a century ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an Assistant Secretary for Labor, was pilloried for his prescient observations about alarming rates of out-of-wedlock births among Blacks. At least when it comes to discussing the causes of the achievement gap, some progress appears to have been made.

Factors that might explain why the Achievement Gap narrowed in the 1980s