Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Structure, Schoolmates, and Racial Inequalities in School Achievement

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Structure, Schoolmates, and Racial Inequalities in School Achievement

Article excerpt

This study examines the influence of schoolmate family structure, racial concentration, and socioeconomic status on the academic achievement of individual African American and White students. The data are drawn from the 1990 test results of 18,000 10th graders who took the Louisiana Graduation Exit Examination. The study finds that being surrounded by schoolmates from female-headed families had the second largest negative association with the academic achievement of African Americans, greater in effect than the association of academic achievement with individual family structure. It appears that the negative effect of concentrations of African Americans in schools may be largely attributed to the association of minority concentration schools with high percentages of female-headed families.

Key Words: academic achievement African Americans family struture, two-parent families, mothers.

Despite a narrowing of the gap in educational attainment between African American children and White children, there are still disturbing inequalities in the educational outcomes of the two major racial groups in the United States. According to a 1994 report of the U.S. Department of Education, African Americans are at a disadvantage in "preschool attendance, grade retention, academic achievement, dropout rates, parental involvement, school climate, course-taking patterns, educational aspirations, labor market outcomes, and adult literacy patterns" (p. 9).

Not only do African American and White children have unequal outcomes from their school years, they often spend these years in different educational and familial environments. According to the National School Boards Association, about two thirds of African American school children were attending segregated schools in the 1990s (Orfield & Monfort, 1992). African American students are more likely to report that they feel unsafe in their schools, that their learning is disrupted by other students, and that they have problems getting along with teachers (U. S. Department of Education, 1994, p. 11). Finally, the majority (65%) of African Americans in 1990 who were younger than 18 years old lived in single-parent households, but the majority (76%) of White minors lived in households with two parents (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

Thus, African American children tend to go to segregated schools with disruptive and unsafe environments, and the majority of them are in singleparent households. If single-parent households, which are overwhelmingly headed by women, characterize the background of students in schools where African Americans predominate and if the social environments of African American schools inhibit educational excellence, then it seems reasonable to hypothesize that students from singleparent households somehow are producing social environments in schools with minority concentrations that prevent young minority members from fully realizing their capabilities.


In the mid-1960s, Coleman and his associates (1966) provided support for the view that schoolmates play an important part in shaping the education of young people. Studies of the academic achievement of minority children generally have provided evidence that these children do better in racially mixed schools. (See, for example, results of the studies of the influences of desegregation on achievement in Bankston & Caldas, 1996; Bridge, Judd, & Moock, 1979.)

Coleman attributed racial differences in achievement to socioeconomic differences between the races. Because schools that are predominantly White tend to contain students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, Coleman expected schools with majority White populations to be beneficial for minority children. Studies, however, have found that the concentration of African American young people in schools has a negative effect on achievement, independent of socioeconomic status (Bankston & Caldas, 1996; Caldas & Bankston, 1997; Rumberger & Willms, 1992). …

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