Achievement Gap Thesis

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Neckerman asks why an oppositional culture should have arisen, as in black communities education was almost the only route to achievement.

(She does not refer to the underworld, sports, and entertainment as alternatives routes to status in black communities, but surely they played a role in shaping attitudes toward education.) So where does Neckerman find the answer?

This volume is a deep and full exploration of the schools of our second largest city, as Chicago was during this period, drawing on bodies of research that go back a hundred years.

I find Neckerman’s distinctions, between the explanations she finds less supported in the research and those she eventually alights on, less sharp than she does.

Her conclusion is that “the urban decline thesis cannot by itself account for the problems of inner-city schooling that emerged…in the 1940’s and 1950’s.” She notes that during most of the first half of the 20th century the issue in the Chicago schools was European immigrant children.

Early on, black students had an advantage in enrollment over immigrant students, and a small advantage in graduation from high school.In the postwar period she documents a widening education gap between black and immigrant students.Did insufficient or poor jobs for blacks give them less reason to stay in school?Neckerman points to the opportunities in the public sector and the civil service, where there was much less discrimination, and in the independent professions, namely law, medicine, dentistry, and the clergy, which “offered a chance to avoid some of the discrimination that private-sector employees faced,” and all of which required education.She does not dispute the widespread degree and depth of discrimination, but holds that in this situation education offered some advantage, some hope: “The economic returns to education…was [sic] similar for black and immigrant workers.” Yet the gap in taking advantage of educational opportunities grew.She writes that “the public schools lost legitimacy in the eyes of the black community.” The second is the failure of vocational education to do much for black children.Vocational education began as an effort to connect to the world of work those children not headed for college, but in time it diverged between a higher track that afforded training that led to jobs, and a lower track that was simply an alternative to expected academic failure.Under these conditions the teachers are reluctant to teach and the students resist learning.” Clark’s research had been cited in the key Supreme Court decision banning state-imposed segregation in public schools, but one suspects on the basis of this quotation that he was already doubtful that desegregation alone would solve the problem of an adequate education for urban blacks.Not, of course, that desegregation was simple: it turned out to be awfully complicated and has never been substantially achieved in northern and midwestern cities.The second is racial barriers to employment in the North, “more subtle but no less real” than in the South.The third possibility is the rise of an “oppositional culture,” in which “academic effort [was framed] as a betrayal of racial identity—‘acting white.’” On the issue of resources, she documents rising expenditure for the schools (in 1980 dollars) during this entire period; rising salaries for teachers, particularly in the 1950s; and declining numbers of students per teacher.

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