Study finds racial segregation a strong factor in learning disparities

Racial segregation in the schools is fueling the learning disparity between young black and white children, while out-of-school factors are more important to the growth of social class gaps, according to a study by Emory University sociologist Dennis Condron.

His findings were published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review.

Condron was perplexed by prior research showing that schools narrow the achievement gap among students of varying social classes while widening the gap between black and white students. To tease out possible reasons for this difference, he analyzed data from the Kindergarten Cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

He found that between the fall and spring of first grade, black students’ reading and math skills fall almost two months behind those of white students. After controlling for other factors, the data suggested that segregation of schools was a primary driver of this early black-white learning disparity. In contrast, out-of-school factors explained the growth of social class gaps.

“This research adds an important piece to the puzzle of when and why social class and black-white inequalities in academic achievement emerge,” says Condron, assistant professor of sociology. “And I hope it raises awareness that social class and black-white achievement gaps come from different sources to some extent. We tend to speak of ‘the’ achievement gap, but in reality different gaps probably have different sources and require different solutions.”

His research also indicated that regardless of social class, black students are less often taught by certified teachers than are white students, and black students are far more likely than white students to attend predominantly minority schools, high-poverty schools and schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The findings are “a reminder of a persistent problem,” Condron says, decades after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka struck down state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students.

“De facto segregation remains high these days, with important implications for education,” he says. “When it comes to both housing and schools, race trumps class as the central axis upon which blacks and whites are segregated. Real solutions to the black-white achievement gap lie far beyond schools and require changes to society more broadly.”

Condron’s study is the lead article in the October issue of the American Sociological Review, which also features two other studies of educational inequality.

A specialist in educational disparities, Condron is currently analyzing data on more than 80 countries to research the impact of economic inequality on countries’ average achievement levels.

For more news on the natural and social sciences at Emory, visit www.emory.edu/esciencecommons.

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