Americans are more concerned about wealth-based achievement gaps than race

Digital reporter/producer, Race Matters and education
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According to new research, Americans are more empathic to and supportive of policies addressing the wealth-based achievement gap than race-based. Photo by Eric Gaillard/Reuters

More Americans acknowledge wealth inequality-based achievement gaps — and are willing to create policies to combat them — than race-based disparities in education, according to new research published in the Educational Researcher. Respondents were also more prepared to explain the sources of these wealth-based gaps, from parenting and student motivation to injustice and discrimination.

“In general people have a grasp of why there might be gaps in achievement between wealthy and poor kids, but it’s harder for them to grasp why there might be differences across races.”

The study, which surveyed respondents representative of national demographics of race, income and political affiliation, found that 64 percent of Americans are strongly in favor of closing the the test-score achievement gap between poor and wealthy students. Yet only 36 percent and 31 percent expressed the same motivation toward the black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps, respectively.

“What we wanted to see was how the public feels about the gaps, where they think they come from, and do they feel differently about different types of gaps,” lead researcher Jon Valant told the NewsHour. “In general, people have a grasp of why there might be gaps in achievement between wealthy and poor kids, but it’s harder for them to grasp why there might be differences across races.”

Survey participants were given four possible options as the underlying causes of educational disparities including discrimination and injustice, student motivation, parenting, and genetic differences. Forty-four percent of respondents said that achievement gaps between both blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites had little or nothing to do with discrimination and injustice, whereas just 10 percent said it was a significant cause. But when it comes to the wealth-based gap, the possible causes were much more evenly split, with 22 percent saying discrimination and injustice aren’t factors versus 21 percent saying it is a major cause.

“We were surprised that so many Americans believe race- and ethnicity-based gaps are minimally, or in no way, a result of the nation’s legacy of racial discrimination and injustice,” survey author Daniel Newark said in a statement.

44%: The number of respondents who say the black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps had little or nothing to do with discrimination and injustice.

When it comes to solutions, respondents were also more likely to support specific policies when they addressed wealth-based achievement gaps compared to race. The survey polled participants on their support for teacher bonuses, school vouchers and summer school programs. Across the board, support for these policies was higher among those surveyed about wealth-based educational disparities.

For teacher bonuses specifically, 52 percent supported a proposal to increase teacher bonuses in order to reduce the gap between poor and wealthy students. In contrast, only 31 percent were in support when it came to the gap between black and white students. Even fewer — 27 percent — were in support for the Hispanic-white gap.

When ad for income, race and political affiliation, Valant notes survey participants were more likely to acknowledge gaps and support policy initiatives for groups they are a part of. Low-income respondents were more likely to be concerned about the poor-wealthy gap, black respondents about the black-white gap, and Hispanics about the Hispanic-white gap.

According to research by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University, black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps have been declining in different states at an unsteady rate over the last four decades. But individual state achievement gaps often have a strong correlation with the state’s racial socioeconomic disparities. From the Center for Education Policy Analysis:

One potential explanation for racial achievement gaps is that they are largely due to socioeconomic disparities between white, black, and Hispanic families. Black and Hispanic children’s parents typically have lower incomes and lower levels of educational attainment than white children’s parents. Because higher-income and more-educated families typically can provide more educational opportunities for their children, family socioeconomic resources are strongly related to educational outcomes.

While the new study from the Educational Researcher might suggest that education advocates will find more success by reframing educational disparities within race-blind contexts, Valant says that’s a dangerous overgeneralization that ignores the nuanced factors for why each gap exists.

“They have different origins and implications,” said Valant. “So I don’t think it’s so much of us just reframing what we’ve been talking about in terms of poverty.

“But I do think there’s something in here that suggests people are just more naturally empathic and concerned about differences between poor and wealthy students than about students of different races,” he said.

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