August 12, 2019

Myth: Disparities in education are not an issue of race but rather an issue of poverty

The Franklin High School Class of 2013, celebrating on graduation day. Photo credit: Matt Morton

In partnership with Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens, Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio debunks incessant myths that act as barriers to education equity in Oregon. This blog is intended to provoke both thought and action, offering an opportunity to look beyond common myths and re-imagine a public education system rich in opportunity.


Historically, when issues of racial equity are talked about people will often say that the problem isn’t racism but rather that people of color are more likely to be poor and that any discrepancies that exist (either in terms of opportunities or outcomes) are more the result of poverty than race.

A study produced in Oregon by the Center to Advance Racial Equity compared racial groups within similar income categories to see what level of academic achievement was attained by each group.1 The findings showed that in Oregon, when comparing academic achievement of higher income students (wealthier students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch subsidies) to other students, students of color were not as able to reach the same levels of academic success. And that “while income remains a protective factor for all student groups (meaning high income students do better than low income students), even economically advantaged students of color are, on average, unable to gain the educational results attained by economically advantaged white students.”2

Academic achievement differences were visible in elementary and middle schools, presenting about a 5 percentage point difference in test scores, both in English and math. In high school, the gap doubles and more affluent white students have test scores that are approximately 10 percentage points higher in both math and literacy. Graduation rates are also significantly better for white students, at 85 percent compared with 81 percent for students of color.3 In short, even among the more affluent students, students of color face barriers that interrupt their educational progress, while white students are able to take fuller advantage of the benefits of higher incomes.

The second study looked at these patterns across time and found that, in comparison with the 1950s and 1960s, there is in fact a reduction of the influence of race on student success and rising influence of family income.4 This insight does not invalidate the prior study, but it brings forward a troubling view that suggests progress has been made in reducing the influence of racism in student achievement.

But not so fast …

This isn’t much of a good news story. The main cause is that income inequality has been surging in the past 40 years and low income students increasingly are part of single parent families where fewer adults being present narrow the likelihood of enough time to support homework and reinforce academic needs. Also implicated is that students of color are increasingly likely to attend high poverty schools,5at levels eight to 10 times higher than that of white students.6 In essence, income inequality is outpacing the influence of racial dynamics. Racial disparities by income remain intact (as the first study indicates), though they have reduced over the past two generations, but inequities have worsened due to rising income inequality.

These data are important to disprove the idea that racial disparities are simply an indicator of more important consequences of inequality—income. These aren’t data that absolutely disprove that income matters more than race but are evidence that confirm beyond any doubt that a large comparative study of students is needed, collecting their racial and income demographics, tracking income changes and how that impacts their academic performance over time. Simply put: The study should track all students in a district or state and assess how incomes and race influence school performance. The current problem is that the education system does not track income, except for student eligibility for free and reduced lunch programs, which captures those with incomes up to about twice the poverty level.

Until this comparative study is done, we draw from the best available evidence that shows even affluent students of color still are unable to get the same level of academic achievement as their white counterparts. We ask that educators build the ability to shoulder the possibility that racism exists in their schools, classrooms and teaching. We also know that most people, including educators, do not want to believe themselves capable of racism, despite the fact that studies show 96 percent of educators hold unfavorable bias toward students of color.7 It’s easier to believe that educators fail students due to income barriers rather than race bias.

Is it really hard to believe that our schools are not performing well enough to support children of color and many educators deflect issues of race and redefine them as poverty or income related?

Frankly, it’s easier to think we fail students because they don’t have enough resources at home than because we educate white students better than students of color. The available research shows that racial equity and educational dimensions that include harmful elements of racism and white privilege must be the focus of school and education system reform efforts.
 

Notes


  1. Sinkey, A. & Curry-Stevens, A. (2015). Equity in education: Disaggregating student outcomes by race and income in Oregon. Portland, OR: Center to Advance Racial Equity, Portland State University. 

  2. P.36, in Sinkey, A. & Curry-Stevens, A. (2015). Equity in education: Disaggregating student outcomes by race and income in Oregon. Portland, OR: Center to Advance Racial Equity, Portland State University. 

  3. P.36, in Sinkey, A. & Curry-Stevens, A. (2015). Equity in education: Disaggregating student outcomes by race and income in Oregon. Portland, OR: Center to Advance Racial Equity, Portland State University. 

  4. Reardon, as cited by Bernhardt, P. (2013). The Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) Program: Providing cultural capital and college access to low-income students. School Community Journal, 23(1), 203-222. 

  5. Reardon, S. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. In G. Duncan & R Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools and children’s life chances (pp.91-116). New York: Russell Sage & Spencer Foundations. 

  6. Wise, T. (2016). What is your perception? Unpacking white privilege. At Teaching with Purpose. Portland, Oregon. 

  7. Clark, P., & Zygmunt, E. (2014). A close encounter with personal bias: Pedagogical implications for teacher education. The Journal of Negro Education, 83(2), 147–161.