Chicago Sun Times
April 28, 2005

by Kate N. Grossman

The achievement gap between blacks and whites has stayed the same since 1990, and absent significant changes, the gulf could persist for much of the 21st century, according to new research by a University of Chicago economist.

This is in contrast to much of the 20th century, when the national achievement or "skill gap" between white and black students and young adults -- as measured by test scores, years of schooling and graduation rates -- decreased sharply.

"There are all kinds of things that could happen in the coming decades that could get us back on course, but if we extrapolate the current trends, things look really bleak," said Derek Neal, whose research will be published in the fall in the Handbook of Economics of Education. "We can't wait around and hope things get better"

Neal documented how the gap didn't narrow in the 1990s, and even grew slightly, and showed how African-American youth in urban centers lost significant ground relative to white students in test scores during the 1980s and 1990s.

           Chicago statistics

In Chicago, for example, racial gaps in graduation rates increased between 1991 and 2001, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Between 1997 and 2004, the gap in reading and math scores also widened, a consortium analysis found. The consortium wasn't involved with Neal's study.

Neal laid out several variables that could explain these trends, though he did not endorse any theory. The factors disproportionately affected black parents and children starting in the 1980s.

These include dropping employment rates and wages for low-skilled workers, growing prison rates for black males, the crack epidemic, differences in black and white investments in their children and how they parent.

By 2000, for example, about half of the black males between 26 and 35 who dropped out of high school weren't working, and a quarter were institutionalized, usually in prison. Neal also reported a dramatic rise in mothers who never married among blacks with no postsecondary schooling between 1980 and 1990, as well as a drop in earnings for black parents of preschool kids. In 1980, blacks earned 68 percent as much as whites. By, 2000, it was 56 percent.

"What we have in the 1990s is very little progress in test scores and educational attainment for young [black] adults, who were born in the 1980s, in the middle of that chaos," Neal said. "I have no proof that the two are connected. What I do know is that I have identified in gory detail that there is a problem."

On a national test, black 9- and 13-year-olds made striking gains in reading and math from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, but then the gap stopped closing.

Family resources in a child's early years are especially crucial, Neal notes, because black children typically start first grade significantly behind whites.

In his paper, which culled data from the census, national labor and education statistics and from other researchers, Neal explores whether differing investments by blacks and whites in their young children are driven simply by economics and time or also by cultural norms.

       Early teaching strategy

One tool Neal highlights to help reverse the current trend is quality early childhood education, an intervention well-established by research. The Chicago public school system, for example, has an academic-based preschool program that includes classes for parents at its "Child-Parent Centers."

A University of Wisconsin researcher, who wasn't profiled by Neal, has followed for nearly 20 years the low-income, mostly black kids who went to one of the centers in the 1980s. He found higher high school graduation rates, lower juvenile arrest rates and more total years of schooling than for kids in other preschool programs.

President Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which measures schools based on the performance of all subgroups, including blacks, was passed in large part to help close achievement data. Neal's data aren't relevant because they largely end in 2000.

Neal and colleagues who reviewed his work said they hope the trend since 1990 is only an aberration.

"There are a lot of things from the 20th century that I don't plan for the 21st, like Jim Crow and other things that retarded progress," said Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist. "I'm actually quite optimistic that we'll achieve parity. . . . But it's not crazy to look at those numbers and say [the gap could persist well into the 21st century]. Only time will tell."