What Will Decrease Educational Inequality?

June 15, 2003

Student’s educational outcomes are boosted or hindered by their families’ socioeconomic background. Although certainly not fair to the student, such inequality is likely to persist throughout the 21st century, despite much rhetoric and a few policies directed against it. 

WCER researcher Adam Gamoran says that reducing gaps in student achievement in the coming century will depend on preserving policies that emphasize reducing inequality and on developing new initiatives. 

Throughout the 20th century, both the structure and the process of schooling remained largely unchanged. Despite periods of experimentation, schooling still consists of a teacher facing a group of students in a classroom, nested within a school within a school district, and governed locally. Dominated by textbooks, lectures and recitation, instruction has remained fundamentally unchanged, even though new tools offer other approaches to class work, homework and teacher-student interaction. 

The rates of high school completion for white and minority students nearly reached parity over the course of the 20th century, yet the rates of college enrollment and completion are still far apart. A 1999 report from the U.S. Department of Education showed that 27.5 percent of whites had obtained bachelor’s degrees or more, but only 12.2 percent of blacks had reached that level. Blacks, moreover, tend to take longer to receive their high school certification, increasing their overall disadvantage. 

And although test scores are converging over the long term, the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed significant black-white gaps among 17-year-olds, even though the gaps had declined since the 1970s. 

Socioeconomic causes of inequity

The most important reason for educational inequality between blacks and whites is socioeconomic. Whites tend to have parents with higher levels of education, occupational status, and income than do blacks. These parental characteristics are associated with white students’ better educational outcomes. Differences in family background consistently account for about one-third of the test score gap and for almost all of the inequality in rates of college entry and graduation among black and white high school graduates. 

The past century witnessed improvement in the socioeconomic backgrounds of blacks as compared with whites—primarily increases in parents’ years of schooling and decreases in family size. These improvements accounted for much of the convergence in test scores and probably contributed to the achievement of near-parity in high school completion rates as well. And just as blacks who attended high school in the 1980s and 1990s benefited from their parents’ educational accomplishments, so their children will benefit from the further narrowing of educational inequalities. 

Differential quality of schooling is another explanation that has been offered for black-white differences in educational outcomes. Yet variation in social background is a far more potent predictor of differences in achievement and attainment than variation among the schools that students attend. In fact, studies that examined test scores in both the fall and spring have shown that most of the difference between blacks and whites at the elementary level emerges during the summer, when school is not in session, rather than during the school year. Blacks and whites make similar progress during the school year, but during the summer, white students’ achievement scores continue to improve, whereas those of blacks remain flat or decline slightly. Gamoran says this pattern indicates that 

  1. racial differences in achievement reflect conditions outside school far more than those inside school; and 
  2. on the whole, schooling helps limit the expansion of gaps in racial achievement as children age, at least during the elementary years. 

Moreover, school quality may differ for Blacks and Whites who attend the same school if their school experiences are different—for example, if blacks are assigned to inferior programs or classes. When test scores and social background are held constant, Blacks face no disadvantage in enrolling in college preparatory programs as compared with whites. But because black students’ test scores and socioeconomic status are on average lower than whites’, blacks are overrepresented in noncollege tracks. This overrepresentation reduces their achievement and attainment relative to whites. Blacks and whites both increased their enrollment in college tracks in the late 20th century, but the rates of increase were similar, so changes in tracking patterns did not contribute to changes in inequality. 

Although differences in high school completion are small in percentile terms, the economic consequences of failing to complete high school have grown increasingly severe. Differences in rates of college completion by socioeconomic status are far greater. 

Privileges are preserved

Why are students from privileged backgrounds more successful in schooling, and why do these advantages persist over time? Gamoran says economic, cultural, and social differences combine to preserve privilege across generations. Signs of change in economic inequalities affecting schooling are modest. Policymakers increasingly recognize that unequal school financing across school districts is unfair, and some are taking steps to reduce these inequalities. But this trend will do little to reduce the major advantages students from families with more economic resources have over students from families with fewer resources. The most important resources tend to operate at the individual level, so they are unaffected by changes in the redistribution of collective funds for education. 

Gamoran says it’s difficult to predict how a rigorous system of testing on a national scale will affect trends in educational equity. In the short term, using a standardized test as the sole criterion for high school graduation would drastically reduce rates of high school completion among blacks of all social classes. Why? Because among whites and blacks of the same social class, Whites tend to have higher test scores. Economically disadvantaged students would also be adversely affected. In the long run, however, assessments incorporating higher standards could further reduce educational inequality between blacks and whites if:

  • the tests were used to bring about a more standardized curriculum, foster a greater emphasis on learning opportunities, as well as outcomes, and increase incentives for schools to support minority student learning by heightening awareness of, and accountability for, unequal outcomes; and
  • the tests did not serve as the sole criterion for high school graduation.

The pressure for testing and accountability is strong. If implemented in such a way as to enhance, rather than restrict, opportunity, testing may accelerate the trend toward the equalization of educational outcomes across racial groups. 

Material in this article was originally published in different form in Sociology of Education, Extra Issue (2001), pp. 135–153.