Public Policy Forum Blog

Fixing the achievement gap may require preventing it

As you've likely heard, Wisconsin has the worst black-white achievement gap in the nation. Black students in our state are further behind their white classmates than in any other state when it comes to reading. The only thing more troubling is that the gap is increasing in our state, not decreasing.

I would argue that the problem persists not for lack of trying: Milwaukee, where the majority of the state's black students live, has been at the forefront of education reform for nearly two decades. School choice, charter schools, decentralization, neighborhood schools, K-8 conversions, alternative teacher a buzzword in school reform and we have it in Milwaukee.

This may lead some to conclude the problem is intractable. It leads me to conclude that the problem should be prevented in the first place. As-yet unpublished research by Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and Harold Fryer finds no racial differences in mental functioning at age one. However, a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life, which they conclude is "broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age."

In other words, children tested at age 1 perform similarly across races, it is only in later years that an achievement gap develops. The reliability of testing one-year-olds seems questionable, but the authors assert that their measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores. Translation for non-economists: differences in babies' intelligence are due to differences in their parents' intelligence, not to differences in their race.

Levitt and Fryer find it's the differences in environmental factors that give rise to the achievement gap. So maybe we should stop asking the schools to make up for those environmental factors and should tackle them head-on ourselves. The first one the Forum will take up is early childhood education. How can our region most cost-effectively improve the quality of early childhood programs? Stay tuned.

Anneliese Dickman