Educators often point to a student’s socioeconomic status as the greatest predictor of school success.
That explanation has the benefit of providing a built-in excuse for why urban districts serving low-income minority kids perform so poorly.
But a new analysis of state English and math test results indicates something more than money is at play here.
In fact, the Education Trust-New York discovered that the gaps between white students and students of color are actually larger among more affluent pupils than among low-income kids.
As the trust put it, "schools underserve students of color regardless of their income level." (emphasis theirs)
Statewide in English among low-income students, for instance, 26 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Latinos were proficient, compared to 28 percent of white students. But among better-off students, the gaps were yawning: 57 percent of white students were proficient, compared to just 42 percent of Latino students and 39 percent of blacks.
The pattern was similar in math, where 22 percent of low-income blacks and 24 percent of Latinos were proficient, compared to 32 percent of whites. At the higher income levels, the gaps grew: 60 percent of whites were proficient, compared to just 39 percent of Latinos and 33 percent of black students.
While the data is not broken down by indivdual district, Erie County numbers follow the same pattern. In English, the 27 percent proficiency rate for low-income whites doubles that of low-income blacks and Latinos. But among better off students, 55 percent of whites were proficient, compared to just 37 percent of Latinos and 26 percent of blacks.
In math among low-income students, 32 percent of whites were proficient compared to 15 percent of Latinos and 11 percent of blacks. Futher up the income scale, the gap widens: 59 percent of whites, 37 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of blacks were proficient.
For Bell Curve proponents, there is an easy explanation for the gaps. For the more rational among us, other explanations come to mind – explanations rooted in the fact that we have yet to fully address issues of race and equity in education despite much obvious progress.
"Are we maintaining consistently high expectations for all groups of students, including historically underserved students?" Education Trust Executive Director Ian Rosenblum asks rhetorically.
That’s a particularly crucial question in a district like Buffalo, where minority students are 80 percent of the enrollment while the teaching staff is 85 percent white and nearly two-thirds of those teachers live in the suburbs. How much are unconscious stereotypes about what students are capable of – the so-called soft bigotry of low expectations – fueling the gaps?
Rosenblum also points to research showing that students of color are more likely to be assigned ineffective or inexperienced teachers or those teaching outside of their field, factors he calls – "critically important." Funding inequitites as well as an unequal access to the more rigorous courses – such as middle school algebra — also play into the gaps, he said.
None of these are the students’ fault.
"It’s all about the decisions the adults in the education system make," he said, including state policy makers who make decisions regarding funding, curriculum and standards.
While much attention has been paid to the plight of low-income students, this report makes clear we also still have a race problem in education. We probably didn’t think we’d be saying that six decades after Brown vs. Board of Education. Thank goodness the Education Trust is.