Why Is Black Educational Achievement Rising?

By Armor, David J. | The Public Interest, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview

Why Is Black Educational Achievement Rising?


Armor, David J., The Public Interest


IN LIGHT of the vigorous criticisms of American public education heard in recent years, one might reasonably conclude that our public schools are in a state of collapse. The need for reform is thought to be especially urgent in large, urban school districts. There, according to critics like Jonathan Kozol, disadvantaged students languish in deteriorating, segregated facilities with low standards, inferior and underfunded programs, and unmotivated teachers.

Such conditions might be expected to have caused the greatest educational damage to minority students, since they are the predominant group in most urban school systems. Yet according to the latest reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), conducted for the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, minority students have shown substantial gains in academic achievement over the past twenty years in both reading and mathematics. The gains are greatest for black students and are especially striking when black achievement is compared to white achievement. Over this same interval white achievement has remained relatively constant, and therefore the black-white achievement gap has been cut in half.

Black achievement trends thus seem to contradict the prevailing perception that urban public schools are failing. What has caused these trends? Are they simply statistical artifacts? If they are real, are they due to improvements in schools or to changes in students and their families? We know, for example, that school systems with high proportions of disadvantaged and minority students have been targets for both desegregation and compensatory-education initiatives. We also know that academic achievement levels are strongly influenced by a student's socioeconomic background, and that minority families have gained ground in this respect over the past twenty years. Can black achievement gains be traced to specific school programs or to improvements in the socioeconomic status of black families?

Many social scientists and education experts who have written on this topic prefer school-based explanations for black achievement gains. At least two major school theories are in vogue. One claims that black achievement gains are due to school desegregation, most of which occurred during the 1970s. Another holds that minority achievement gains are caused by expanded compensatory programs for disadvantaged students, such as Head Start and Chapter 1, whose funding has increased greatly during the last twenty years. Education researchers have offered a variety of other school-based explanations, including better teachers, improved curriculum and academic standards, and smaller classes.

In contrast to school theories, less attention has been paid to the role of socioeconomic factors in black achievement gains. It is well documented that socioeconomic factors are among the major explanations of black-white achievement differences and that the socioeconomic conditions of minority populations have improved over the past twenty years. But a clear link between black achievement gains and socioeconomic improvement remains to be established.

This essay explores the causes of black achievement gains. New evidence available from the NAEP offers valuable insights into which explanations for these achievement trends are most credible. Although the NAEP findings are not definitive by themselves, when considered in conjunction with other studies of black and white achievement the evidence suggests that the socioeconomic advancement of black families is more important than school programs--school desegregation in particular--in explaining rising black achievement.

Black and white achievement trends

Before discussing the causes of black achievement gains, the size of the gains must be emphasized. Figure 1 shows black and white reading achievement between 1971 and 1990 for thirteen-year-olds (most of whom are eighth graders). …

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