Public Policy Forum Blog

Fighting an uphill battle

It always feels a bit discomforting to say, "Race and economic status are highly correlated to academic achievement." Children can change neither their race nor their income; a statement like the one above can feel like saying these children also cannot improve their academic achievement. But when confronted with the lackluster-to-dismal achievement data of many Milwaukee schools, where the race and income patterns are so stark, its hard to avoid making that statement.

As the Forum's recent report on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program found, these patterns appear among private school students as well as public school students. In both the public and private sectors in Milwaukee, there are very few schools enrolling predominantly minority and low-income students producing high test scores. (Even among the suburban public schools with fewer minority or low-income children, we've found that as those populations have grown, aggregate test scores have declined.) And while the private school data are new, are they really news, considering how entrenched the pattern has been in the public schools?

What is news is the fact that, while the nation's schools have made some progress in closing the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap has grown significantly. A recent New York Times story highlights the research of Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, who analyzed data from 12 national studies starting in 1960 and ending in 2007 and found that while the average black-white racial achievement gap has shrunk in half since the 1960s, the gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families has grown 40% in that time, and is now twice the size of the racial achievement gap.

Schools with low-income students in their charge, whether public or private, are fighting against a nationwide, decades-long trend. While several of these schools, on an individual level, have stellar outcomes, educators are still hunting for the best strategy to improve outcomes system-wide. The hunt requires even more urgency now--the recession is creating more, not fewer, poor families.

Anneliese Dickman