05/02/2011 03:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

Why the Black-White Gap Was Closing When It Was

In my last post I gave a test. I pointed out that from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the black-white gap in reading tests, IQ test scores and other sorts of test scores was fast closing. This progress ceased in the 1980s. The questions were: Why was the gap closing when it was? Why did such significant progress cease in the 1980s?

These questions have really not been researched and debated enough to have definitive answers. Nonetheless, I believe we know pretty well, in a "big picture" way, what the answers are. But before I give my answers, consider two salient (but not all that well-known) facts.

First, we all know that being poor puts a child "at risk" for reading failure. But the correlation between being poor and failing at early reading is not all that large. What is really large is the correlation between pooling poor kids in school and early reading failure and a subsequent lack of school success (see: Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1998). If you are one of a few poor kids in a classroom, chances are that you will be all right. If you are one of many, you're in big trouble. Ceasing to pool poor children in poor schools would do as much or more for reading scores than any specific instructional intervention. In fact, high levels of poverty in a school are a better predictor of children who will have reading problems than is a lack of early phonemic awareness, a variable that has been the focus of much early reading research and policy.

The second fact is related to the first: Family, community and school factors beyond instructional methods contribute more to school failure or success than do specific methods (however efficacious some of them may otherwise be), a fact which has been known for nearly three decades (see Pearson, P. David. "The first-grade studies: A personal reflection," Reading Research Quarterly 32.4: 428-432, 1997). School instructional methods do, most certainly, influence school success, but they are less influential than home and community factors. Paying attention to the first while ignoring the second is a recipe for failure. One very important home factor is how much adults talk to children, not just how much they read to them (see: Hart, T., & Risely, B. Meaningful Differences in the Early Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes, 1995).

The black-white gap was closing because, thanks in part to Johnson's War on Poverty, segregation was decreasing in the United States. The progress stopped because neo-liberal approaches to policy focused on school and market variables and not any longer on social and civil variables. Segregation increased. Today, many policy makers and educators do not see pooling or unpooling poverty as "reading variables" like phonemic awareness or comprehension strategies. But the truth of the matter -- and it is an expensive truth to ignore -- is that school is not separate from society, and that ceasing to pool poverty is the key variable to undoing the black-white gap, as well as the gap between rich and poor children more generally.