The black-white education divide


From the 1940s, when the census began including education data, through the 1990s, black Americans grew closer to white Americans in education equality. A decade ago that progress hit a wall, and Derek Neal wants to know why. Presenting his paper, "Why Has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped?" (pdf) at Tuesday's inaugural Committee on Education workshop, Neal charted the statistics behind the trend—using test scores, graduation rates, and income levels—then ventured into the possible reasons.

Several economists blame the skill gap on a self-fulling prophecy, said Neal, economics department chair and director of the Chicago Workshop on Black-White Inequality. They assert that "blacks expect employers will not reward them for skills," so they don't invest in education. "Employers," he said, "if they expect that blacks will not invest in skills, will be confirmed in their prejudice." Neal doesn't buy this argument because it's a "tricked-up, fancy" explanation rather than the obvious answer that "because of historical discrimination...there are existing wealth discrepancies that make it more costly to become skilled if you're black than if you're white." Further, he notes, this scenario doesn't explain why the progress has stopped.

Marshaling more charts and graphs, Neal dismissed two other proffered reasons for the disparity. Although America's labor market changed in the 1980s to further separate skilled and nonskilled workers, that shift is not the reason. "Not that the labor market is fair," he noted, or that blacks "know there will be no reward for investing in skills." And schools? "There is no evidence that black kids fall farther behind white children after 8th grade."

A possible reason, Neal proposed, is "going to have to be a family story." In 2000 one in ten black children lived with neither parent, he noted, and in the past 20 years black family income has fallen relative to whites. Economists argue that "the adverse shock to black family income comes in part from the change in wage structure in the '80s," he said. "Then if the wage structure stabilized it would be a temporary shock" and black families would recover in the future. "More troubling to me," he said, are parenting style differences (see third image at right). "Is there a cultural difference," he asked, causing "even black and white families that have the same opportunities to have different preferences in parenting styles? I don't know."

After Neal spoke, psychologists Susan Goldin-Meadow and Susan Levine explained their own research on early language and math skill development. They are following 60 Chicago children, from different demographics, throughout their educations. As Neal later noted, if Goldin-Meadow and Levine "can define parenting styles that are effective and then look at different groups," there may be a way to explain whether resource discrepancies explain such preferences "or if it's culture." And that, he said, "is where we can be interdisciplinary."


Photos (top to bottom): Neal gestures as he explains his paper (top); Susan Levine discusses how her research relates to Neal's; Neal believes parenting-style differences may be a factor.

May 10, 2006