I’d like to preface my remarks by stating that while I will be speaking about trends and factors for broad ethnic and racial groups, all people are individuals. No sum of any person is his or her racial or ethnic group membership. That membership is just one among myriad attributes any given person has, and just one among numerous variables affecting their educational trajectory. That is crucial to keep in mind when discussing groups, and in understanding that there is no single answer for why one group may tend to have different educational outcomes than another. There are simply too many variables at play for one or two factors to explain all differences.
I should also note that I have not previously done specific research projects dealing with racial and ethnic achievement gaps, but am familiar with the gaps from studying American education as a whole, as well as research on the effects of numerous possible contributors to student performance. In particular, my areas of focus have been school choice, federal education policy, higher education costs, and social capital and education.
It is also important to note that low‐income African Americans, at least as of a 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, do not necessarily attend college at lower rates than low‐income white students, at least among those students who have graduated high school.1 Breaking high school graduates into three SES bands — bottom 20 percent, middle 60 percent, and top 20 percent — Black and Sufi found that from 1969 to 1997 low‐SES black students were generally more likely to enroll in college than low‐SES whites, though the rates fluctuated over that period and by the end low‐SES white enrollment exceeded black. That said, it is unclear what the trend has been since the late 1990s, and there is no question that while enrollment for low‐income African Americans may have been roughly consistent with low‐income whites, the schools in which blacks have enrolled have tended to be of lower quality than those of whites. For instance, Reardon, et al., found that for the high school class of 2004, while small percentages of white, Hispanic, or black students in the lower‐half of family incomes attended highly selective colleges, rates for African Americans were consistently lowest, followed by Hispanics. That said, much greater separation occurred in the latter‐half of the income scale, and the Hispanic‐white gap was only statistically significant between the 50th and 90th percentiles.2
In addition to the quality of colleges accessed, there appear to be disparities in college completion. Low and moderate‐income blacks and Hispanics appear to complete postsecondary education at lower rates than white students, even after controlling for SES. According to work by Camburn, low‐SES white students are more than twice as likely as black or Hispanic students to finish college.3 This should be taken with a grain of salt, however: Camburn’s work was published in 1990 and was based only on six metropolitan areas. More research on completion by race, controlling for SES, needs to be done.
Of course, entry and success in college is connected to academic preparation and success before college. After controlling for income — a major component of SES — achievement gaps remain. Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress exams shows shrinking, but not disappearing, back‐white gaps when scores are broken down by eligibility for free or reduced‐price lunch. In 2007, for instance, whites overall scored 26 points (out of 500) higher in 4th grade mathematics than blacks and 31 points higher in 8th grade mathematics.
Focusing on reduced‐price eligible students, those gaps were essentially sliced in half, coming in at 13 and 15 points, respectively. Similar decreases occurred in reading.4 For Hispanics, FRPL eligibility narrowed 4th grade math gaps from 21 to 11 points, and 8th grade from 26 to 13 points. Again, similar results were found for reading. Of course, many Hispanic students come from families where English is not their first language. Not surprisingly, when comparing scores for white students and non‐ELL Hispanics gaps also shrank. We see this in math and English, with the 4th grade reading gap dropping from 25 to 15 points when looking only at non‐ELL Hispanics, and from 24 to 15 points in 8th grade.5
The next important question is how much does academic preparation account for differences in racial/ethnic groups’ college entry and completion? Camburn found that after controlling for race, SES, and other factors, “academic preparation received before entering college,” as measured by standardized test scores and high school grades, was an important predictor of college completion.6 This may well be in part because lower grades lead to attendance at institutions with fewer student supports than schools attended by higher performers, such as community colleges.7 It may also be because students with poor academic preparation have to take more remedial courses just to begin credit‐bearing courses, a major stumbling block for many who face it. For students at two‐year schools who are required to take a remedial course, only 10 percent graduate in three years, versus 14 percent who did not have to take such courses. At four‐year schools, 35 percent who take remedial courses graduate within six years, versus 56 percent who do not have to take such courses.8
Of course, there may be many factors that underlie academic achievement that need to be addressed to raise achievement, especially for low‐SES African Americans, whose scores lag those for low‐SES students of other groups.9 One thing may be inadequate resources. This, however, seems unlikely to be a major problem. Not only has overall funding for K-12 education risen markedly over the last several decades — from $4,815, adjusted for inflation, per‐pupil in the 1965–66 school year, to $13,210 in 2011-12 — but spending for black and white students appears to have been largely equalized.10 An analysis of over 400 studies on school resources and outcomes found no consistent, strong relationship, and Fryer and Levitt found that, at least for the first couple of years of school, black and white children attended institutions that differed little in terms of traditional resource measures such as class sizes and teachers’ education, while less quantifiable problems, such as school gang problems and even litter, were much more prevalent in schools attended by African Americans.11 Within schools only class size (largely for younger children) and teacher qualifications seem to have repeated, statistically significant effects, and Rand reports that individual and family factors have four to eight times the impact on student achievement as teachers.12
Perhaps there are important cultural issues at play, though “culture” can be a somewhat nebulous term. In this case, culture refers to generally held group values and orientations concerning education.
Crucially, two areas where there seems to be no meaningful distinction among broad racial and ethnic groups is belief in the importance of education or the desire to see children get a good education. Indeed, the 1966 “Coleman Report” stated that after looking at several survey questions about schooling interest and goals, “Apart from the generally high levels for all groups, the most striking differences are the especially high levels of motivation, interest, and aspirations reported by Negro students.”13 Similar levels of expressed motivation continue to be found.14 The problem seems to be that these aspirations do not translate into equal college enrollment or completion, especially when considering the types of schools students enter. Again, African‐American and Hispanic students disproportionately enroll in institutions that get poorer outcomes.
Part of this likely stems from cultural underpinnings correlated with lesser academic outcomes. For starters, African‐American families are more likely to be single‐parent and large than are white families, which makes it more difficult for children to get the regular, high‐quality interactions with adults conducive to maximum emotional growth and cognitive development.15 Both African Americans and whites have seen considerable increases in the percentage of children under 18 living just with their mother — the typical single‐parent situation — but African Americans have seen a much larger jump. Children living only with their mothers rose from around 6 percent of all white children in 1960 to around 19 percent by 2014. For African Americans the rate increased from about 20 percent in 1960 to over 50 percent by 1990. It has since stayed at about that level. Consistent Hispanic data are only available from 1980, but children in mother‐only households rose from only about 20 percent in 1980 to roughly 28 percent in 2014.16 Looking only at low‐income households using 2008 census data, the Urban Institute found that 78 percent of low‐income African‐American families had a single parent with no other adults present, versus 56 percent for whites and only 42 percent for Hispanics.17
The basis for this disparity may stem from the family‐destroying practices of slavery and Jim Crow, in which families were rarely kept intact and black males were often rendered powerless. As Patterson has argued, it may well be that cultural trends, including single‐mother families, evolved from the realities for previous generations — disenfranchised African‐American men on whom black women were once dependent but are no more — but can be modified by changing those realities.18
A potentially major cultural proclivity stemming from generations of disenfranchisement — though perhaps it is more a mental state than a component of culture — is a sense among African‐Americans that education is very important, but even with it, societal structures make success very difficult if not impossible, dampening motivation. The Coleman report observed this decades ago, which it suggested might explain a large gap between expressed college‐going aspirations and actual academic achievement.19
In the 1960s, with Jim Crow laws having long been in place in large parts of the country, that the odds of success were stacked against blacks no matter what they achieved educationally was a very reasonable thing to believe. In contrast, it is possible that large African‐American NAEP gains from the late 1970s to 1990 were at least partially attributable to a greatly improving civil rights environment decreasing the tendency to feel powerless.20 That does not, however, mean that all feelings of powerlessness went away — they did not21 — and given several high‐profile cases of possibly egregious police misconduct against black males, as well as stubborn, wide, economic gaps between blacks and whites, feelings of powerlessness could grow.
Of course, cultural differences go deeper than attitudes about the importance of education and self‐efficacy. There is also a significant cultural difference in the way parents tend to interact with their children, though, importantly, this difference does not seem to remain after controlling for socioeconomic status. That said, there is an appreciable correlation between race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Looking at children from birth to 36 months, Hart and Risley found large differences based on SES in both the volume of words to which children were exposed and the quality of verbal interactions. Looking at total word exposure, low‐SES children heard 616 words per hour, working‐class children 1,251, and high‐SES children 2,153. The way parents interacted with children also differed markedly, with high‐SES children much more often being asked questions and complimented, and low‐SES children more often being dictated to.22 And these numbers likely do not represent the most disadvantaged families: all the families in Hart and Risley’s study were fully intact and stable.
Perhaps the most important finding from Hart and Risley in terms of culture is that the different ways in which classes of parents interacted with their children tended to enforce the norms and expectations of their class rather than pushing all kids toward in‐demand analytical thought: