CHICAGO—The achievement gap between African-Americans and whites, which narrowed for much of the 20th century, has stalled and is likely to persist for generations unless something is done to improve the learning experiences of African-American children, contends new research at the University of Chicago. Derek Neal, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, is the author of an upcoming chapter, “Why Has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped?” to be published later this year in the Handbook of Economics of Education.
In the chapter, Neal traces the educational progress of African Americans during the 20th century. He argues that the experience of the past 15 years is an ominous departure from the pattern of sustained progress observed throughout most of the 20th century.
The 1940 Census is the first source of national data on educational attainment, and Neal points out that the black-white education gap among young adults fell steadily from 1940 to 1990. In 1990, however, black-white convergence in educational attainment stopped. “Among men and women ages 26 to 30 in 2000, the black-white educational attainment gap is slightly larger than the corresponding gap in 1990,” he said.
Scores on standardized tests follow a similar pattern. “From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, black children made striking gains in achievement while scores for white children remained relatively flat,” Neal said, but test score gaps among 9- and 13-year-olds stopped closing in the late 1980s.
Other measures of trends in educational achievement since 1990 tell the same story. Among 21- year old black men, high school graduation rates were lower in the late 1990s than they were in the mid- 1980s. The opposite is true among young white men. Further, the ratio of white to black college graduation rates among young adult men rose between 1990 and 2000 after falling for decades.