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Reassessing the Achievement Gap: An Intergenerational Comparison of African American Student Achievement before and after Compensatory Education and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

by Christopher Span & Ishwanzya D. Rivers - 2012

Using data from the Digest of Educational Statistics, this article argues that an intergenerational comparison is a more productive, progressive method to interpret data used to gauge the achievement gap. It applies this method by comparing the academic achievement scores and educational outcomes of African Americans over a nearly 70-year period, 1940–2008, and uses the metrics— National Assessment of Educational Progress average reading scores in fourth and eighth grade and high school and college completion—most often applied in assessing the achievement gap. It argues that since the inception of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and the compensatory education programs that have grown out this act, African Americans have made some of the greatest strides in improving their educational performance and outcomes in virtually every measureable category used to assess the achievement gap. The intergenerational comparisons offered serve as a counterassessment to the traditional modes of analysis that compare the achievement scores and educational outcomes of white to minority students.


The “achievement gap,” or the gap between the academic achievement of students from traditionally underrepresented or minority backgrounds and white students, has in recent years dominated contemporary considerations and conversations in the field of education, much as the concept of the “disadvantaged child” and cultural deficits dominated education discourse in the 1960s. Closing the gap seems to be the focus of everyone interested in education, from former president George W. Bush, who instituted No Child Left Behind (NCLB); to the current president, Barack Hussein Obama, who supports much of the concept of NCLB; to television anchorwoman Soledad O’Brien, host of the CNN documentary Black in America; to everyday educators, parents, and citizens who simply want to see schoolchildren perform at their highest level.1

Several methods have been employed to measure the achievement gap between white students and students from underrepresented or minority backgrounds, particularly African Americans, who until 2009 were the largest minority group in the United States. Comparing the academic performance of students on standardized tests—such as reading or doing mathematics at or above grade level—has been one of the most common assessments, as has it been to compare the highest level of educational attainment (such as obtaining a high school diploma or a college degree). More recently, some researchers have sought to shift or reframe conversations around the achievement gap to assessing the historical and sociopolitical conditions that established the gap in the first place. For instance, in her 2006 American Education Research Association (AERA) presidential address, Gloria Ladson-Billings, in a deeply passionate and moving speech, argued that the intense focus and scrutiny on the achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts has been sorely misplaced. In her mind (and the authors of this article agree with her), the focus of the debate should not be simply on the obvious factors—such as the cultural mismatch of students and teachers, curricular policies and school resources, pedagogical practices, and so on—that exacerbate the gap. The debate should be redirected toward examining and articulating the “education debt” that has accumulated over time; this “debt” is intergenerational and, to Ladson-Billings, the primary cause of the gap. To her, minority students and their school communities have been most impacted by education debt because of how their race or ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, heritage, and particular histories in the United States have directly influenced their access, preparation, and educational outcomes. In both a plea and a call to action, Ladson-Billings used her presidential address as a platform to challenge education researchers to rethink their strategies in examining the achievement gap and, in some ways, for these researchers to consider applying a historical lens to their analysis in order to best assess why students are achieving or underachieving.2

As historians, particularly historians of education who have studied the specifics of the African American past and the impact the vices of slavery and segregation have had on this group’s lived experiences and outcomes, we encourage the challenge to rethink the achievement gap and compensatory education. The purpose of history is to study change over time and to offer the best assessment of what happened with the source material evidence available to us. For modern U.S. historians of education, who use their training to additionally explain what is happening in American schooling, if assessing the achievement gap is one area of inquiry, it should be no different. The achievement gap should not be simply a comparison of one racial or ethnic group to another. Instead, it should be an intergenerational comparison of a group’s academic performance over an extended period, independent of peer groups. It should assess the successes and limitations of a group from one generation to the next and seek to offer an interpretation of what happened or what is happening within this group and the historical context of the time. As the other contributions in this theme issue illustrate well, such considerations and analysis are necessary.

We want to use the methodology of intergenerational comparison over 70 years to place the concept of compensatory education into perspective and link it to modern discourse about achievement gaps. Knowing that in a short article, we cannot do justice to such a big sweep of history and to other scholarship, we want to point to some trends in a relatively concise way, in a broad-brush approach to a complicated topic. Generally speaking, comparing the outcomes of one group to another makes very little sense; it personifies the household adage of comparing apples to oranges. This is particularly true when assessing achievement. Suppose, for example, that someone compared the scholastic achievement scores and educational attainment of Native Americans to Asian Americans. One group’s existence predates the founding of the colonies that formed this nation; the other group comprises more recent immigrants to the United States. Would this be a fair comparison? If so, why? If not, why? By this logic, would it be fair to compare the educational experiences and outcomes of African Americans to whites? Rarely do two groups—whether males to females, or African Americans to whites, or native-born persons to immigrants, or even parents to children—have the same historical experiences in the United States, so why should we presume that they would have comparable experiences in school?

This article seeks to provide a counterassessment that shifts the discourse and analysis away from what African Americans have not achieved, to what they have accomplished independent of peer groups. Using data from the Digest of Educational Statistics, we argue that an intergenerational comparison is a more productive, progressive method to interpret data used to gauge the achievement gap. We apply this method by comparing the academic achievement scores and educational outcomes of African Americans from 1940 to 2008 and use the metrics of average reading scores in fourth and eighth grade and high school and college completion, those most often applied in assessing the achievement gap. When studied through the lens of history, this approach recognizes the achievements that African American students, historically disadvantaged because of their race, have made from one generation to the next, rather than simply offering an invidious evaluation of what they have not accomplished in comparison with a group that has, conversely, been historically advantaged because of their race.3 We argue that since the inception of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and the compensatory education programs, such as Head Start and Title I, that have grown out this act, African Americans have made some of the greatest strides in improving their educational performance and outcomes in virtually every measureable category used to assess the achievement gap.


Examining reading assessments in historical perspective provides a useful example of the intergenerational approach to evaluating achievement. In 2009, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the U.S. Department of Education’s

National Center for Education Statistics reported that, based on a 500-point scale, “The national reading average for African-American fourth graders was 203 points, compared to 230 points for white students.” For eighth graders, the national reading average “was 259 points for African-Americans and 290 points for white students.”4 It is obvious that a gap exists between the two groups, but what is unclear is why or how the gap began, whether it has declined or increased, and, if so, by how much, or for how long. Rarely is historical context or longitudinal data presented to best assess what these numbers mean. Data of this sort are usually presented as an end product, not as a longitudinal projection of the past, present, and future considerations of student achievement.

 When NAEP data are studied more closely over an extended period (see Figure 1), one has an opportunity to gain a better appreciation of the progress African American students have made independent of their peer groups. In 1971, NAEP offered its first assessment on reading to the public. Table 1 illustrates the NAEP average reading scores of nine-year-old African American, white, and Latino/a children between 1971 and 2004. There is a “gap” between the groups when they are compared with one another, but what is more striking is the intergenerational progress these groups made, when studied independent of each other and over an extended period, although their gains were not monotonic. In 1971, white fourth graders averaged a reading score of 214, and by 2004, the average score was 226, an increase of 12 points. For African American fourth graders, the average reading score was 170 in 1971, but by 2004, the score was 200, an increase of 30 points. For fourth-grade Latinos/as, the average reading scores were unavailable for 1971, but between 1975 and 2004, the average reading scores steadily improved for the group by 22 points. Of the three groups assessed, it is clear that African Americans had the most pronounced gains in this 33-year period. The progress is mentioned in the literature on the achievement gap, but rarely is it emphasized in a manner that stresses these gains independent of comparison and what this progress means in reaccessing or reframing African American achievement in school.5

Figure 1. NAEP Average Student Scale Score in Reading, Age 9, 1971–2004

Source: Adapted from Table 110: Average Student Scale Score in Reading, by Age and Selected Student and School Characteristics: Selected Years, 1971 to 2004, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d04/tables/dt04_110.asp

Similar progress can be seen if one assesses NAEP data for eighth graders over an extended period (see Figure 2). In 1971, white 13-year-olds in the eighth grade had an average reading score of 261. By 2004, their average reading scores increased to 266, an increase of 5 points. African Americans eighth graders in 1971 had a mean reading score of 222, and by 2004, the average reading score was 244, an increase of 22 points. For Latinos/as, the average reading score was 233 in 1975, and by 2004, it was 242, an increase in 9 points. Again, African Americans had the most identifiable change of the three groups in this 33-year period. Why?

Figure 2. NAEP Average Student Scale Score in Reading, Age 13, 1971–2004


Source: Adapted from Table 110: Average Student Scale Score in Reading, by Age and Selected Student and School Characteristics: Selected Years, 1971 to 2004, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d04/tables/dt04_110.asp

The answer requires historical context. Until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, most African Americans lived under the oppressive system of segregation known as Jim Crow, and African American children attended segregated schools. Jim Crow defined every aspect of black life and consigned African Americans to a life of servitude and subordination. The education debt that African Americans accrued within this oppressive system is incalculable. Voting and other forms of civic engagement, land ownership, economic self-sufficiency, freedom of choice, and access to quality public accommodations and schools were either severely circumscribed or simply denied to African Americans. Much of this would change after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and ESEA (1965). As historian Michael J. Klarmen demonstrates, prior to the passage of “the 1964 Civil Rights Act, only one black child in a hundred in the South attended a racially mixed school.”6 He further illustrates that Brown was virtually ineffective in achieving desegregation because of the massive resistance on the part of white southerners to the ruling and the fact that by 1964, a decade later, less than 1% of all desegregation suits had received a ruling from the courts.

Given the resistance to, and slow pace to comply with, Brown, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy removed desegregation complaints from the courts and placed them under the authority of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). In addition, he demanded that HEW threaten to “withhold federal education funds from districts that continued to segregate.”7 According to Klarmen, “the percentage of southern black children in desegregated schools shot up from 1.18 percent in 1964 to 6.1 percent in 1966, 16.9 percent in 1967, 32 percent in 1969, and roughly 90 percent in 1973.”8 Concomitantly, to receive any additional federal monies associated with Title I, Head Start, or any other compensatory education programs, schools that had purposefully segregated or denied African Americans equal access to a quality education under Jim Crow would now have to comply with the more stringent guidelines established by HEW. Paradoxically, southern districts in need of federal aid to support their struggling school systems were paid in federal dollars to not discriminate against African American schoolchildren, and this, in turn, was one factor that led to their access to schools with better resources and opportunities.

A policy report to the Educational Testing Service in 2010 by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley offers additional historical context to explain the success of African Americans in the last three decades. Stressing the effectiveness of compensatory education programs, they contend that “at the top of the list of factors that may have contributed to progress in closing the gap,” particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, “are the federal government’s investments in Head Start and Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).”9 Their assessment is based on the positive results seen in the longitudinal evaluations of Head Start and Title I and the federal monies provided to the two programs. By 1970, the combined apportionments for Head Start and Title I were $1.7 billion. By 1980, they were $3.9 billion, and by 1985, $5.3 billion. Pointing to the importance of the combination of education and social welfare factors that former Head Start director Edward F. Zigler and others have emphasized, Barton and Coley concluded that the funds “went to feed infants and children who might have gone hungry, and research is clear that such deprivation has an impact on learning and cognitive development.”10

The cumulative end result of these initiatives and developments alongside Brown, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and many other equity initiatives of this era was a generation of African American youth, for the first time, attending school without the legal restriction and punitive enforcement of segregation.11 Another end result was the “birth” of the achievement gap, as African American students, for the first time, were being directly compared with their white peers in some form of standardized assessment. The NAEP reading scores, particularly those from the 1970s, are a part of this history. Schoolchildren in 1971 would become parents in the 1990s and grandparents in the 21st century, and they—unlike their parents and grandparents—would be in a better position to help the next generation of African American schoolchildren advance their reading, writing, and mathematical skills. While African American progress in academic achievement has not been a steady linear change between 1971 and 2008, it is reasonable to assume that the increased access that African American schoolchildren had to a quality education post-1970 led to an improvement in the group’s NAEP average reading scores (as seen in Figures 1 and 2) in the subsequent years. It is also reasonable to speculate and reassess how compensatory education may have contributed to these gains over time.12


Another measure used to assess the achievement gap is educational attainment. The literature in the field is replete with examples of the gap between white and African American high school and college graduation rates. Notwithstanding, what is targeted in this section is the longitudinal progress that African Americans have made in high school completion and college attendance independent of their peer groups. As Figure 3 illustrates, in 1940, only 7.7% of African Americans aged 25 years or older had a high school diploma. By the time of Brown, African Americans had a high school graduation rate of less than 20%. Notwithstanding, by 1980, the number of African Americans with a high school diploma—or its equivalent, the General Education Development (GED) degree—more than doubled; and by 2008, nearly 83.3% of all African Americans age 25 or older had completed their high school requirements. In this 68-year period, the high school graduation rate for African Americans increased by 75.6%, and after the passage of ESEA, the cornerstone of compensatory education, the high school graduation rate for African Americans nearly tripled.

Figure 3. Percent of Persons Age 25 or Older Who Completed High School, 1940–2008


Source: Adapted from: Table 8 Percent of Persons Age 25 and Over, by Years of School Completed, Race/Ethnicity, and Sex: Selected Years, 1910 to 2008, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_008.asp?referrer=list

Historians who have researched the origins of the comprehensive high school, or African American education in the first half of the 20th century, document that the lack of secondary schooling opportunities for African Americans undermined any possibility of raising their high school completion percentages. In Mississippi, a state with a majority-black population well into the twentieth century, African Americans had virtually no opportunity to attend school beyond the elementary grades. In 1940, for example, “of the 115,000 educable black children of high school age, only 9,473 were enrolled in a high school. By contrast, there were 575 high schools for white adolescents and they enrolled 62,747 students.” By 1950, just 261 schools throughout Mississippi were “doing some high school work,” but only a handful of these schools were considered to be the equivalent of a comprehensive high school. Mississippi epitomized most southern states of this period. It never developed a system of high schools for blacks prior to the Brown decision because the role of high schools—to prepare young adults for citizenship, college, work, and leadership opportunities—remained antithetical to the expectations that whites had of African Americans.13

According to economist Derek Neal, by the 1970s, the “shock” the African American community suffered from being denied access to a quality high school education resulted in African American adults being underprepared to take advantage of their newfound freedoms and economic opportunities in a post–de jure segregated society. To Neal, African Americans without a quality education or high school diploma (a minimum requirement to be qualified for most job considerations post-1965) were caught in a vicious circle of poverty, and these combined realities may offer one explanation for the halted progress seen in NAEP average reading and math scores of African American schoolchildren in the late 1980s and 1990s. Many African Americans were unable to achieve economic mobility because of limited educational preparation or because they lacked a high school diploma and were forced to reside in impoverished neighborhoods with inferior schools and resources. All these factors, and more, should be considered when assessing achievement gaps. Using a combination of data—educational attainment, test scores, graduation rates, and skill development—to assess what is needed for an individual to effectively compete in the contemporary marketplace, Neal concluded:

Results based on convergence rates that represent best case scenarios for Black-youth suggest that even approximate Black-White skill parity is not possible before 2050, and equally plausible scenarios imply that the Black-White skill gap will remain quite significant throughout the 21st century. Absent changes in public policy or shocks to the economy that facilitate investment in black children, there is little reason to be optimistic about the future pace of black-white skill convergence.14

To state more plainly, if Neal is correct, African Americans in the 21st century will never gain economic parity or the skill sets needed to effectively compete in the workplace unless additional investments in the form of compensatory education are specifically targeted toward African American communities still impacted by the vestiges of past discrimination and harm.

If high school enrollment and completion rates were low or nonexistent for African Americans prior to the passage of ESEA, logic dictates that college enrollment and completion rates were even lower. In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois, in his famed publication, The Souls of Black Folk, argued that at least 10% of the African American population should obtain a baccalaureate degree from a liberal arts college or university. Du Bois wanted to produce what he called the “Talented Tenth”: a cadre of classically trained, college-educated African Americans who could serve as the leaders of their race.15 As he so eloquently stated, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”16 Nearly 90 years would elapse before Du Bois’s vision of a “Talented Tenth” would be realized.

As Figure 4 illustrates, in 1940, almost 30 years after Du Bois’s treatise, only 1.3% of African Americans aged 25 or older had a baccalaureate degree, in 1950, just 2.2%, and in 1960, only 3.5%. By 1980, 15 years after the initiation of Title I and the Higher Education Act, the percentage doubled to 7.9%, and by, 2008, 19.7% of all African Americans 25 or older had a baccalaureate degree. What these data suggest is that as secondary education became more available to African Americans after 1970, so too did the likelihood of African Americans attending college at a rate competitive with their peers. What these data also illustrate (when assessed alongside high school completion data) is that in 1940, 1 in 7 African Americans who graduated from high school also graduated from college, and in 2008, the percentage improved as 1 in 4 African Americans who graduated from high school also graduated from college.

Figure 4. Percent of Persons Age 25 or Older with a Baccalaureate Degree


Source: Adapted from: Table 8 Percent of Persons Age 25 and Over, by Years of School Completed, Race/Ethnicity, and Sex: Selected Years, 1910 to 2008, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_008.asp?referrer=list


So what does all this mean? What these data demonstrate is that following the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main source of funding for what was then called compensatory education, African Americans, when given the chance to attend and receive schooling on a more equal basis, made tremendous strides in virtually every measureable category used to assess academic achievement. These data also illustrate that there is a need for historians to lend their expertise and training in assisting educators and policy makers in the rearticulating and addressing of this important quandary. The intergenerational comparisons offered in this short essay serve as a counterassessment to the traditional modes of analysis that compare the achievement scores and educational outcomes of white students with those of minority students. By applying a historical analysis in assessing the academic achievement and educational outcomes of African Americans, one can gain a better understanding of both the unique challenges this group has faced and overcome in society, and the academic progress, from one generation to the next, that they have made in school. The comparison is not relational to other races or ethnicities, but to African Americans themselves. In many ways, the methodology applied seeks to change the focus and emphasis of the debate over who is achieving or underachieving in school and in overall life outcomes.

As it is currently applied, discourse and analysis on the achievement gap (whether intentionally or not) inculcates in the minds of all involved that the performance and progress of students from minority or underrepresented backgrounds should be relational or in comparison with the majority population: whites. This consideration offers a binary analysis that pits one group against another—whites vs. otherness—and it has the potential to instill in children who are underperforming a very negative perception of who they are and what they can become. Self-esteem, or a high regard for self, is one of the most important attributes a child needs to do well in all aspects of life. For instance, if people in society only hear what African Americans are not doing, rather than what they have conventionally done to advance themselves in the wake of progressive changes in American society, society at large (inclusive of African Americans) will accept as true a very negative perception of African Americans and their ability to effectively compete in society. During the Brown litigation, social psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Clark illustrated this in astounding and painful detail in the “doll tests” they conducted on young African American children. The Clarks concluded that racial prejudice, segregation, and low expectations of African Americans caused countless African American children to develop an unhealthy self-image and to expect only inferior opportunities in life.17

The perceptions drawn from current discourse and analysis on the underachievement of African Americans as compared with whites, according to educational researcher Bruce Hare, leads to a “differentiated” self-esteem and effort on the part of African American schoolchildren. He demonstrates that African American students, to maintain a healthy self-esteem in school, emphasize establishing peer relations (making friends) over academic achievement (performing at their highest level). The choices these students made to ensure a healthy sense of self in school has had a ripple effect in how African American students who have adopted this strategy are viewed. To Hare, it has led to a low or lowered expectation of African Americans from society, from their teachers, schools, and peers, and, in many cases, from their own communities.18 Shifting the discourse on the achievement gap from what African American children are not doing in comparison with whites to what they have accomplished, from one generation to the next over an extended period, provides an alternative way to frame the debate. It also provides an opportunity to highlight how African Americans have made tremendous strides in the classroom, to educate the nation on the education debt African Americans have accrued since their earliest experiences in the United States, and to concurrently address the underperformance or limitations African American children have in school.

The reality is that African Americans have a very different history than whites, and despite nearly 50 years of federal reform and a collective effort on the part of African Americans to improve themselves, they still are not equal in society.19 Many Americans assume that the initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Brown, the Civil Rights Act, and ESEA, made African Americans equals, but this notion is based more on perception than reality, and it sorely miscalculates the impact that racism, discrimination, and segregation had (and continue to have) on this group’s overall progression. The following formula illustrates this well: 246 years of enslavement (1619 – 1865) + 100 years of state-sanctioned segregation (1865 – 1965) – 46 years of something other than enslavement and state-sanctioned segregation does not = 0—that is, equality.20 Put differently, the authors of this article are among the first generation of American children born in a United States where slavery and state-sanctioned segregation do not exist. Laws may have been ratified that afford African Americans a chance to participate in mainstream society in ways they have not historically been able to do, but these laws do not require people to think differently about African Americans and their perceived place, existence, or comparison with others in the American social order. Only you and I, in learning about the strengths and limitations of each other, can do that.

In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois, in his epic publication, Black Reconstruction, asked, “If a poor, degraded, disadvantaged horde achieves sudden freedom and power, what could we ask of them in ten years?”21 The question was addressed to the expectations the nation had of the African Americans who emerged from slavery in 1865 but who had not, by 1875, achieved equality with the people who had hitherto held them in bondage. The authors of this article ask a slightly similar question to the one posed by Du Bois: What can one ask of a people in a single generation? In a single generation, African Americans have more than doubled their high school graduation rates and tripled their college completion rates. In the last 30 years, they have consistently raised their NAEP average reading scores to narrow gaps between themselves and their peer groups. Statistics of this nature are usually deemed progress, and the people who achieved them, a success. These are scenarios of progress, when they are not presented as an objectionable comparison of one group with another. Rethinking compensatory education, as the articles in this special issue do, may help us see achievement gaps in a new way, in historical perspective across the generations. This rethinking may also help us reassess the effectiveness of compensatory education itself, despite the “deficit thinking” that initially accompanied it.22

As historians of African American education, we look forward to documenting what the next generations of Africans Americans, in relation to their predecessors, will achieve in school. It is hoped that additional measures of federal support, such as those established by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the compensatory education programs that emerged from this act, will be created in the 21st century to aid and assist future generations of students in their educational advancement.


The authors would like to thank Drs. James D. Anderson, Adrienne Dixson, John Rury, and William T. Trent for providing critical feedback on enhancing this essay. The authors also extend an extremely warm and gracious thank you to Dr. Barbara Beatty for the opportunity to publish this manuscript in this special issue of Teachers College Record. Barbara, words cannot describe what this opportunity means to the both of us.


1. Public Law 107-110 of the 107th Congress, An Act to Close the Achievement Gap with Accountability, Flexibility, and Choice, so that No Child is Left Behind (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 2002); The Obama Education Plan: An Education Week Guide (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2009); Khadijah Rentas, “Study: Achievement Gap Narrows between Black, White Students,” CNN U.S., July 16, 2009, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-07-16/us/education.gaps_1_white-students-achievement-gap-african-american?_s=PM:US.

2. Gloria Ladson-Billings, “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools,” Educational Researcher 35, no. 7 (2006): 3–12.

3. For literature that applies a similar historical analysis to assessing the achievement gap see, Paul Peterson, ed., Generational Change: Closing the Test Score Gap (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2006); Mark Berends, Samuel R. Lucas, and Roberto V. Peñaloza, “How Changes in Families and Schools are Related to Black-White Test Score Trends,” Sociology of Education 81 (2008): 313–44; Launor F. Carter, “The Sustaining Effects of Compensatory and Elementary Education,” Educational Researcher 13, no. 7 (1984): 4–13; James D. Anderson, "The Schooling and Achievement of Black Children: Before and After Brown v. Topeka, 1900–1980," in The Effects of School Desegregation on Motivation and Achievement, ed. Martin L. Maehr and David E. Bartz (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1984), 103–22; Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped (Princeton, NJ: Education Testing Service, 2010); Chance W. Lewis, Marlon James, Stephen Hancock, and Valerie Hill-Jackson, “Framing African American Students’ Success and Failure in Urban Settings: A Typology for Change,” Urban Education 43, no. 2 (2008): 127–53; James D. Anderson, “The Historical Context for Understanding the Test Score Gap,” National Journal of Urban Education & Practice 1 (2007): 1–21; Anderson, “The Historical Context for Understanding the Test Score Gap,” offers one of the best statements on applying a historical lens to the achievement of African Americans in society and the debate on the achievement gap when he states, “African Americans and educators have much to celebrate, yet currently muting the applause is the looming test score gap” (14).

4. Rentas, “Study: Achievement Gap Narrows between Black, White Students.”

5. For literature that details a comparison of African Americans with whites on the achievement gap, see, among others, Linda Hertert and Jackie Teague, “Narrowing the Achievement Gap: A Review of Research, Policies, and Issues,” EdSource (2003), http://www.edsource.org/pub_achgap1-03_report.html; Richard Rothstein, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (New York: Columbia University, Teacher’s College Economic Policy Institute, 1994); Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance (Washington, DC: OERI, U.S. Department of Education, 2000); National Governors Association, Closing the Achievement Gap (2005), http://www.subnet.nga.org/educlear/ achievement/; Rob Greenwald, Larry V. Hedges, and Richard D. Laine, “The Effect of School Resources on Student Achievement,” Review of Educational Research 66, no. 3 (1996): 361–96; National Center for Education Statistics, Education Achievement and Black–White Inequality (Washington, DC: Department of Education, 2001); Barton and Coley, The Black-White Achievement Gap; David Grissmer, A. Flanagan, and S. Willamson, “Why Did the Black-White Score Gap Narrow in the 1970s and 1980s?” in The Black-White Test Score Gap, ed. Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 182–226; Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, eds., The Black-White Test Score Gap (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998); Jaekyung Lee, “Racial and Ethnic Achievement Gap Trends: Reversing the Progress toward Equity?” Educational Researcher 31, no. 1 (2002): 3–12.

6. Michael J. Klarmen, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 362.

7. Ibid., 363.

8. Ibid.

9. Barton and Coley, The Black-White Achievement Gap, 9.

10. Ibid. On the importance of health care nutrition and other factors, see, among others, Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow, Head Start: The Inside History of America’s Most Successful Educational Experiment (New York: Basic Books, 1992); Edward Zigler and Sally Styfco, The Hidden History of Head Start (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Barbara Beatty and Edward Zigler, “Reliving the History of Compensatory Education: Policy Choices, Bureaucracy, and the Politicized Role of Science in the Evolution of Head Start,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6; and Matia Finn-Stevenson and Edward Zigler, Schools of the 21st Century (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).

11. Brown, Brown II (1955), the Civil Rights Act (1964), and ESEA (1965) were complementary to many other judicial and legislative reforms that would be ratified during the Kennedy-Johnson presidencies. In addition, the Higher Education Act (1965), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the 1965 signing by President Johnson of Executive Order 11246, which enforced affirmative action for the first time, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing, all had a cumulative and positive impact on ensuring that African Americans had access to resources and equity in ways unmatched in American history.

12. Progress in African American achievement has never been linear. NAEP average reading scores for African Americans fluctuated and declined somewhat between 1988 and 1999. For instance, nine-year-old African Americans closed the achievement gap between 1971 and 1988 by 32 points, only for this gap to fluctuate between 1988 and 1999. For 13-year-old African Americans, the gap closed by 18 points between 1971 and 1988, only to drop and restabilize by 2004. Most studies on the African American/white achievement gap have difficulty explaining the movement of these gaps, whether studied independently or with another peer group. For a source that offers one of the best assessments of the differing theories and explanations on this consideration, see Barton and Coley, The Black-White Achievement Gap, 14.

13. Christopher M. Span, From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862–1875 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 178.

14. Derek Neal, Why Has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped? (University of Chicago and National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2005), 2.

15. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day, ed. Booker T. Washington (New York: James Potts & Company, 1903), 33–75.

16. Ibid., 33.

17. Kenneth B. Clark, Prejudice and Your Child, 2nd enlarged edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963); Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1965).

18. Information on the research conducted by Bruce Hare is obtained from Claude M. Steele, “Race and the

Schooling of Black Americans,” Atlantic Monthly 269, no. 4 (1992): 67–78. See also Bruce R. Hare, ed., 2001 A Race Odyssey: African Americans and Sociology (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002).

19. For an excellent account on the inequities between African Americans and whites, see Thomas M. Shapiro and Melvin L. Oliver, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, 1996); Peter Whoriskey, “Wealth Gap Widens between Whites, Minorities,” Washington Post, July 25, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/wealth-gap-widens-between-whites-minorities-report-says/2011/07/25/gIQAjeftZI_story.html; Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, “Twenty-to-One: Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics,” Pew Social & Demographic Trends, July 26, 2011, http://pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics/.

20. This formula is adapted from Joe Feagin’s article, “Documenting the Costs of Slavery, Segregation, and Contemporary Racism: Why Reparations Are in Order for African Americans,” Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal

20 (2004): 49–81.

21. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. Reprint. (New York: Free Press, 1998), 637.

22. Richard R. Valencia, Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-17
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16690, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:01:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Span
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN is the associate dean for academic programs in the College of Education and an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership (EPOL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an historian of African American education and a coeditor of History of Education Quarterly.
  • Ishwanzya Rivers
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    ISHWANZYA D. RIVERS recently obtained her doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Department of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership. She is currently the assistant director of the Center of Multicultural Student Affairs and the Long-Vanderburg Caterpillar Scholars Program at Millikin University.
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