Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Falling Behind

This article (http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3259506.html) appeared two years ago in Education Next by two of the most innovative and creative economists around, Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics) and Roland Fryer.  In it, they show that the achievement gap between black and white first graders is almost nil, once one adjusts for a handful of demographic factors (socioeconomic status, number of books in the home, gender, age, birth weight, WIC participation, and mother’s age at birth of first child).  But:
Once students enter school, however, the gap between white and black children grows, even after controlling for observable influences. We speculate that blacks are losing ground relative to whites because they attend lower-quality schools that are less well maintained and managed as indicated by signs of social discord.
They seem sort of skeptical of this explanation, however -- but they shouldn't be.  They aren't collecting any data on teacher quality and are instead using proxies like

average class sizes, teachers’ levels of education, number of computers in the classroom, and Internet, which are all flawed.  The are numerous studies which show that black students get MUCH worse teachers, on average, than white students.


To try to adjust for this, Fryer and Levitt looked at what happens to the achievement gap when black and white students attend the SAME school -- and not surprisingly, this explained 2/3 of the problem:

we compared the progress of white and black students who attended the same school. If the gap between these students remained the same as in the overall sample, this would suggest that the quality of the schools is not playing a major role in the expanding achievement gap. In fact, black children who attend the same schools as whites lose only a third as much ground as they do relative to whites in the overall sample. These findings are consistent with—but not definitive proof of—the argument that systematic differences in the schools attended by white and black children may explain the divergence in test scores.

But what about the remaining 1/3?  Here's my bet: black students get worse teachers on average than white students, EVEN WHEN THEY ATTEND THE SAME SCHOOL!

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