The Challenge of Educational Inequality

With whites now making up less than half of America’s K-12 students, the country’s success or failure in the 21st century will be decided in the classroom.

Ted S. Warren / AP

Two years into a demanding new era for the American education system, its defining 21st century challenge is coming into sharper focus.

That new era began in September 2014, when for the first time, kids of color constituted a majority of America’s K-12 public school students nationwide. That tilt will only deepen: The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2025, whites will shrink to 46 percent of public school students. Because this shift is most advanced among the youngest children (kids from minority groups already constitute a majority of Americans younger than five), most high school graduates are still white. But the NCES projects that by 2024 minority kids will represent a majority of high school graduates as well.

This demographic transformation frames the education system’s key coming test: extending the opportunity it already provides to kids from the best neighborhoods to those trying to climb from the most troubled communities. Asian American students now equal (or exceed) whites on most key achievement measures. But African Americans and Hispanics, who comprise the vast bulk of the new non-white student majority, still face troubling gaps.

Though long implicitly tolerated, that imbalance has grown unsustainable because those young people constitute an increasing share of our future workers and taxpayers. Unless the U.S. can equip more black and brown young people to succeed, it will face widening inequality, a skills shortage, and growing pressure on Social Security and Medicare as fewer workers earn the middle-class wages that sustain the payroll taxes underpinning those programs. Only boosting the young people already best positioned to scale the ladder won’t meet the economy’s needs anymore.

Recent trends offer some reason for optimism. Since 2000, with little notice, the gap between both African American and Hispanic students and whites has narrowed in the 4th and 8th grade tests in math and the 4th grade reading test conducted for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s common yardstick of student performance. On 8th grade math, the gap since has narrowed for Hispanic but not black students. That’s a significant improvement from the 1990s when African Americans and Hispanics failed to gain ground on most of those tests. Similarly, after changing little from the 1970s through 2000, high school graduation rates for Hispanic and African American students have climbed steadily since 2002 to the highest levels ever recorded.

These results suggest the U.S. may have too quickly abandoned the No Child Left Behind legislation that President Bush signed in 2001 (and President Obama modified with a waiver system that allowed states to trade more flexibility for greater accountability). That law faced opposition from teachers and some parents over its requirements for annual student tests and mandated intervention in struggling schools. But it also required schools to publicly report test results for each racial group and prescribed clear penalties if they failed to improve performance for all students. The test and graduation trends for minority students suggest that pressure had a positive (if often resented) effect.

Under its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act that Obama signed last year, schools still must test annually and report the results by racial group. But now districts will decide how to intervene in under-performing schools. The law will succeed only if communities feel as much urgency about lifting all of their students without the pressure of federal penalties if they don’t.

Even with undeniable gains since 2000, the racial disparities in educational outcomes remain imposing. While 87 percent of white students, for instance, graduate from high school on time, that number falls to 76 percent for Hispanics, and 73 percent among African Americans. And although white, African American and Hispanic students are now about equally likely to start college immediately after completing high school, black and brown students remain much less likely to complete a BA within six years. That disparity hints at the large enduring difference in the quality of the K-12 preparation many minority students are receiving.

Truly leveling the playing field will require difficult changes in the education system, such as greater efforts to ensure that more of the best teachers are assigned to the schools facing the most obstacles rather than those enjoying the most advantages. But it also requires a realistic acknowledgement that schools alone cannot overcome all of the headwinds confronting minority and low-income students.

The gaps in educational opportunity for kids are inextricably linked to shortfalls in economic opportunity for adults. Today about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income. (For whites, the proportion is only about one-third.) As the Stanford University education professor Sean Reardon reported in a path-breaking recent study of test results from every school district, “Of the 1,000 poorest districts in the U.S., only 68 (6.8%) have mean test scores at or above the national average.” Reardon’s powerful findings show that school reforms “might be necessary but … they are not sufficient” to close the achievement gaps, as Southern Education Foundation President Kent McGuire told me at an Atlantic forum on education this week.

Without strategies (from affordable housing initiatives to school-assignment policies) that also combat the economic isolation of so many African American and Hispanic students, the U.S. is unlikely to ever entirely close the racial and income gap in its educational performance. In an information-based global economy—where jobs and opportunity flow to the nations nurturing innovation and skills—all Americans would pay a mounting price for that failure.