More on the Educational ‘Alabama Gap’ and the Crisis That Shall Not Be Mentioned

Last week, I snarkily attacked the notion of genetically-based racial differences in educational outcomes (“A Modest Proposal: Alabama Whites Are Genetically Inferior to Massachusetts Whites (FOR REALZ!)“). Snark aside, this is the key point:

…in Massachusetts, white students (with college educated parents who aren’t poor) have an average score of 312, while black students have a score of 291 (p less than 10-6). Meanwhile, Alabama whites score 293, with no significance difference compared to black students in Massachusetts (p = 0.49). The gap between Massachusetts whites and Massachusetts blacks is the same as the gap between Massachusetts and Alabama whites.

The black-white gap is recognized as an educational crisis. Academics, columnists, pundits, and think tanks regularly attempt to tackle this problem. And it’s a problem that has a huge historical component: before Emancipation, many slaves would be tortured or murdered for daring to learn how to read. In the Jim Crow and lynching era, being too ‘uppity’, such as displaying literacy, could also be a death sentence. Add to that the effects of segregation and discrimination, and there’s quite a few things to overcome.

But the Massachusetts-Alabama gap is as large as the racial gap (and it holds across economic and educational groupings when data are available; data here; Razib has some additional analysis). Educating a white child in Alabama confers the same disadvantage as the historical effects of massive racial discrimination and segregation.

Yet no one talks about this observation. Because if we did, we would have to start asking some very difficult questions about our educational system, questions to which we would not want to hear the answers (including education ‘reformers’). Lest you think this is specific to a few states, many states are a full grade behind Massachusetts (~ ten points), which is about half the racial gap.

Until we begin to ask this critical question, why are so many people so damn certain about the answers?

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3 Responses to More on the Educational ‘Alabama Gap’ and the Crisis That Shall Not Be Mentioned

  1. Pingback: Enough Iowa Already – Bridget Magnus Shows the World as Seen from 4'11"

  2. Newcastle says:

    Seriously, have you ever been to Alabama? This is not a surprise to anyone familiar with Alabama’s schools, it has many largely poor rural school districts. The problems do get mentioned all the time but you are in Massachusetts so you don’t hear the discussion.

    • The point is that the state to state discrepancies are never even discussed, especially at the national level (I just as easily could have picked on Mississippi, West Virginia or a whole slew of states).

      Regarding the poor school districts, the NAEP data does not break down scores by school district poverty, but is the two-grade difference among whites whose parents are college-educated and not-poor due to an excess of college graduates who happen to be non-poor who also happen to reside in poor school districts (relative to MA)? Also, MA is not a low poverty state (it’s about middle of the pack).

      I think this difference has to do with several things:

      1) Poor teaching conditions for teachers: both direct pay and school resources, along with continuing-ed for teachers.

      2) Curriculum. What you teach matters.

      3) Unequal distribution of resources. Even among non-poor whites with college-educated parents, the variability in outcomes is much higher than in Massachusetts (or Maryland or Minnesota, which are comparable states). If Finland is any indication, unequal distribution of resources is a huge problem and exacerbates #1.

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