"Income achievement gap" almost double black-white achievement gap

Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski

Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski

In a dramatic illustration of the impact of income inequality on how children do in school, the achievement gap between children from high and low income families is far higher than the achievement gap between black and white students, a pathbreaking research report from Stanford University has shown.

The report by Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of education and sociology, shows that the income achievement gap—the difference in the average standardized scores between children from families at the 10th percentile of income distribution and children at the 90th percentile—is now “nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.”

A half century ago, the situation was just the reverse. The black-white gap was one and a half times as large as the income achievement gap as defined in the report, Reardon found.

In an interview with EdSource, he said he did not expect to come up with the findings he describes in his paper. The gap in achievement between rich and poor children, he said, “is quite dramatic and quite consequential.” At the same time, he cautioned, “we don’t really know why it has happened.”

Nonetheless, he said, the achievement gap between rich and poor children presents a “big problem that has to be attacked on many fronts.”

For nearly a half century a major focus of education reform in the United States, has been on trying to close the achievement gap between black and white students and, more recently, Latino students as well.

Abundant research has shown compellingly the high correlation between the income level of a student’s family and test scores. But Reardon’s report for the first time looks at the achievement gap between rich and poor children, how that gap compares to the achievement gap between black and white children, and how the gap has evolved over time.

Another notable finding was that the income achievement gap doesn’t narrow, or widen, during the entire time children are in school. To Reardon, this suggests that “a big part of the processes that are responsible for this are things that happen in early childhood before kids get into kindergarten.”

While children at the bottom of the income scale are not doing worse academically than similar kids did decades ago—and in fact are doing better based on their test scores—the wider income achievement gap is a result of children at the top end of the income scale doing far better, he said.

When you look at poor 4th graders today they are doing better than poor 4th graders 30 years ago. But rich 4th graders are doing much, much better than rich 4th graders (over the same time period).  Most of the growth has been because  kids at the high end of the family income distribution level have pulled away from middle income kids, not because kids at the low end have fallen away from middle income kids.

The widening gaps, Reardon pointed out, are also not “confounded by race.” In other words, the income achievement gap is not caused by having large numbers of black or Latino children concentrated at the low end of the income scale. “The achievement gap between rich and poor whites has gotten bigger over time,” he said.

Reardon cautioned against concluding that income levels on their own are responsible for the achievement gap. “We don’t fully understand the mechanisms that contribute to the gap as there are other factors associated with high incomes such as parental education,” he said.

According to Reardon, the reasons the income achievement gap has grown include the following:

  • The income gap between the richest and poorest families has grown over the past 40 years;
  • High income families invest more time and resources into promoting their children’s “cognitive development” than lower income families;
  • High income families increasingly “have greater socioeconomic and social resources that may benefit their children;”
  • Income inequality has led to more residential segregation by income level rather than race, which in turns means that high income children have access to higher quality schools and other resources.

He said policy solutions would include high quality pre-school and support for low income families so they can provide “cognitively stimulating environments for kids.” Reardon also said education funds should be targeted more at schools serving low income children.

In general, he said, educators need to be thinking about about “policies that reduce inequality, policies that can pull the kids at the bottom of the income distribution up.”

Reardon’s report titled “The Widening Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations” was published in September 2011 in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, edited by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane  (Russell Sage Foundation).

Filed under: High-Needs Students, Reforms, Testing and Accountability

Tags: ,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

8 Responses to “"Income achievement gap" almost double black-white achievement gap”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. Mike on Nov 21, 2011 at 9:57 am11/21/2011 9:57 am

    • 000

    I guess this is actually news, but isn’t his what we all expected to be the case? I mean, there’s nothing about being a black child that would, by itself, cause you to perform poorly in school. But there IS something — quite a bit, actually — about being poor that’s going to cause you to perform poorly in school: you’re more likely to go to a lousy, poorly funded school …. your parents are more likely to have low educational attainment themselves …. you’re less likely to have a stay-at-home parent that can nurture your educational growth …. your parents are less likely to circulate with friends in a culture of high educational expectations …. etc etc etc. Because black families are more likely to be poor, they experience a lot of these things, but these things have absolutely nothing to do with being black, and they have everything to do with being poor. I’m surprised that this is even up for discussion. Shouldn’t we already be well into the development of educational funding policies that recognize this fact and work to overcome it?


    • Mike on Nov 21, 2011 at 10:00 am11/21/2011 10:00 am

      • 000

      Oh, and why was this different 50 years ago (i.e., why did black students do worse in school that poor students, 50 years ago)? Because 50 years ago, there WAS something about being a black child that, by itself, caused you to perform poorly in school: institutional racism.

  2. Gary Ravani on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:19 pm11/18/2011 12:19 pm

    • 000

    Concerned Parent:

    You indicate a significant misunderstanding of teacher protections under both contracts and the law. Teachers and behaviors have no protections, only “due process” is protected. This is a fundamental American belief. If a teacher is incompetent it is the duty of management to establish and document that fact. Teachers are required by law to be evaluated at least four times over the course of two years by management prior to becoming permanent employees. During that time they can be dismissed without cause. After becoming permanent they have due process rights. They are innocent/competent until it is demonstrated, i.e., “cause,” to be otherwise. Would you have it some other way?


    • Concerned Parent on Nov 20, 2011 at 10:05 am11/20/2011 10:05 am

      • 000

      Yes, actually. Most jobs in this country are not subject to a due process requirement to let a low performer go. It is not a “fundamental American belief” that you get a property right in your job after holding it for a couple of years. It is telling that you use the term “innocent,” as if losing a job is the same as being convicted of a crime. And what you refer to as the “duty of management” is so difficult to establish that very few teachers are let go, as I presume you know full well. If what you are trumpeting actually worked to a reasonable degree, then we would not have seen so many lemon teachers over so many years (along with a majority who were good, or at least capable). As Groucho Marx once said, who are you going to believe? Me, or your own eyes?

  3. JTF on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:32 am11/18/2011 10:32 am

    • 000

    More evidence of the unfairness and divisiveness of affirmative action quotas based upon race instead of economic status.

  4. Concerned parent on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:23 am11/18/2011 9:23 am

    • 000

    As higher-income parents in an affluent community, we find it necessary to spend considerable amounts to supplement what is provided to our kids by so-called “good” California public schools that in truth are mediocre. The biggest issue is the poor quality of some teachers — only a minority of the faculty, but enough to be a consistent problem over the years through several children and several schools. Families without means will have a much harder problem filling in the gaps. The poor teachers are protected by contract and unions, and can’t be touched. Their rights to their jobs regardless of performance are the highest priority of the educational system, clearly more important than the future prospects of the students.

  5. Rosalyn on Nov 18, 2011 at 8:14 am11/18/2011 8:14 am

    • 000

    Okay…now will legislators and the media stop blaming teachers for low academic scores. How about incorporating family income as one of the factors when considering merit pay for teachers, you know some kind of inverted formula…the lower the family income the more pay a teacher gets for teaching that student.

    Just some thoughts…


    • USVet on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:09 am11/18/2011 9:09 am

      • 000

      I like the idea, as it rewards teachers for challenging assignments. Unfortunately, I can see your suggestion being spun in the press as “class warfare.”

Template last modified: