Income Inequality among Minorities Widens Achievement Gap, Study Says

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Poverty is increasingly becoming a deterrent to academic achievement. Research indicates that 46.2 million Americans, or about 15 percent of the population, lived in poverty in 2011. Nationally, 22 percent of children live in poverty.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), providers of the GRE and TOEFL tests, released a report cautioning that both federal and state government entities must shore up inequality gaps in order to save America’s most disadvantaged students from falling between the cracks of the education system.

“While education has been envisioned as the great equalizer, this promise has been more myth than reality,” said Bruce Baker, Rutgers University Graduate School of Education professor and one of the study’s researchers.

Lead researcher Richard J. Coley, executive director of the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education at ETS, determined that the increase in income inequality among black and Hispanics has created “isolated and segregated” urban public school districts where a large number of black and Hispanic students attend schools where at least 50 percent of students were minorities.

As a result, these students live in areas that are populated by a black and Hispanic population that has a significantly higher poverty rate, despite statistics that show white Americans comprise the largest number of people in poverty.

It has led to large enclaves of mass poverty leading to poor school systems, higher dropout rates, and a greater amount of young people engaging in detrimental behavior like gang activity and out-of-wedlock births. It also creates limited job opportunities, poor health, and the eventual need to get onto government assistance. The report references researcher Gary Orfield who calls the phenomenon “double segregation”— segregation based on both race/ethnicity and poverty.

Coley and Baker see this type of ethnic and income based segregation as a deterrent to progress in academic achievement within the two racial groups.

They also argue that charter schooling has exacerbated student segregation along ethnic, racial, disability, and language status lines.

“Not only is the achievement gap between the poor and the non-poor twice as large as the achievement gap between Black and White students, but tracked differences in the cognitive performances of students in every age group show substantial differences by income or poverty status,” said Baker. “These differences undoubtedly contribute to the increasing stratification of who attends and graduates from college, limiting economic and social mobility and serving to perpetuate the gap between rich and poor.”

The report finds that those who attend private schools are entirely divested from the public school education system. Families who have higher incomes and higher education levels tend to put their children in private school systems at a rate of 13 to 20 percent, varying by state.

Coley and Baker also studied income and school enrollment data and found that those with higher levels of income enroll their children into private schools at a higher rate than public school enrollment.

Washington, D.C. had the highest number with a 3 to 1 ratio of higher income private school enrollment to medium income public enrollment. Basically, this means that for every three students that attend private school in D.C., only one student attends public school.

The researchers believe that students enrolled in these affluent private schools tend to leave behind higher concentrations of child poverty within the public education system.

Coley and Baker find that better developed measurements of poverty could facilitate long-term policy to combat the issue of income inequality and education. Getting a grasp on tracking the effects of poverty as well as its source, Coley and Baker believe, could produce better policy that broadens access to early education, improves the teacher workforce, and may reduce segregation and isolation of poor students.