Closing the Achievement Gap

During the recent struggle over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, a number of left-of-center observers, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, pointed out that students in unionized Wisconsin do better on average than students in non-unionized Texas. The obvious conclusion, or so we were led to believe, is that teachers’ unions lead to better education. 
 
There is, however, a problem with this argument. Drawing on data from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the political commentator David Burge pointed out that white students in Texas outperform white students in Wisconsin, black students in Texas outperform black students in Wisconsin, and Hispanic students in Texas outperform Hispanic students in Wisconsin. This may look like a statistical paradox; Wisconsin does better on average, even though all groups do worse in Wisconsin. But there is an explanation: Wisconsin has a considerably larger share of white students than Texas, and white students tend to fare better than black and Hispanic students. This example highlights the increasing importance of demographics to the American education debate.
 
It is not difficult to understand the sources of the achievement gap. Particularly when confronted with the fact that more K–12 spending hasn’t generally meant better educational outcomes, even defenders of the teachers’ unions often highlight the role of poverty, family disruption, and historical disadvantage in limiting the ability of black and Hispanic students to thrive in school. As a general rule, native-born non-Hispanic whites have reaped the benefits of many generations of relative peace and prosperity. And this long experience of prosperity has contributed to the intergenerational transmission of wealth, tacit knowledge, and social networks that can give one a leg up. Social capital might also contribute to the stability of non-Hispanic white families, in which children are typically raised by both biological parents. 
 
This is in stark contrast to the experience of African Americans, in no small part because of the lingering legacy of enslavement and segregation. The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has written extensively on how the black historical experience has shaped contemporary marriage and family patterns. Today, 72 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers, and a large number of these children are denied the stability and comfort offered by having two parents in the home. African Americans experienced dramatic material progress over the course of the last century, which is not always acknowledged, but it can’t be denied that they still suffer from disadvantages that, say, Mayflower descendants do not.
 
America’s Hispanic population, much of which has its origins in Mexico, faces its own set of challenges. Family breakdown is not as severe among Hispanics as it is among blacks, but it is still troubling, with 53 percent of Hispanics born out of wedlock. As the economists George Borjas and Lawrence Katz have observed, recent waves of Mexican immigrants have tended to have levels of educational attainment comparable to those of the immigrants from southern Europe who settled in the United States in the 1920s. The problem is that educational attainment for the native-born population has increased considerably since the 1920s, which puts Mexican immigrants at a greater disadvantage in a labor market that increasingly rewards education.

Over time, the gap between the children of Mexican immigrants and the children of native-born parents tends to shrink but not disappear. Perhaps we should not be surprised that those with illiterate grandparents in rural Mexico are on average less likely to succeed than those with grandparents who led a prosperous middle-class life in the suburbs of Boston or Detroit.

All of the above tells us that unionized public-school teachers have the germ of a reasonable point: In many respects, America’s K–12 student population presents greater challenges today than it did in 1970. It is therefore not entirely fair to blame unionized public-school teachers for all of America’s educational woes. But if our K–12 students are having a much harder time because of a complex, interrelated set of social problems, what are the implications for our economic future? What are we to make of the fact that a unionized public-education system in Wisconsin failed to meet these challenges, while the Texas model (when properly measured) has proven more successful?

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