We know that the average African-American student lags behind the average white student. But until recently, we did not have a clear portrait of the differences between black and white high-achievers in elementary school - a critical pipeline issue in shaping inequality in access to the most coveted colleges, graduate schools, and jobs. Thanks to Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist of education who studies school segregation and the sources of racial/ethnic achievement gaps, we’ve come a long way.
How does the progress of initially high-achieving black and white students compare as they progress from kindergarten through 5th grade? It turns out that high-achieving black students fall back significantly more than low-achieving black students. For students who start school at the 84th percentile, black-white gaps grow twice as fast as students who start school at the 16th percentile. (See Reardon’s paper here.)
The question, then, is why. Reardon suggests a few possible mechanisms, each of which deserve more attention in future research. The first possibility is an outgrowth of racial segregation. The average black high achiever attends school with lower achieving students than the average white high achiever. If teachers teach to the middle, high-achieving black kids may lose out compared to their white peers. A second possibility is that teachers treat black and white low achieving students similarly, but differentiate treatment among high-achieving black and white students. (This seems less plausible to me, but perhaps you have thoughts here.) A third possibility is that the home environments of high-achieving black and white students diverge more than the home environments of low-achieving black and white students.
Kudos to Reardon for putting this issue on the map, and may a thousand dissertations bloom.
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