Study: Race Plays Role in Political Response to Falling Grad Rates

Analysis by Dr. Patrick Flavin of Baylor University and Michael Hartney of the University of Notre Dame concludes that state education authorities and policymakers tend to be more responsive to falling graduation rates among white students and less so to falling African-American graduation rates. As Ronald Roach of Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports, the authors find that a fall in the percentage of white students who earn a high school diploma draws increased attention to instructional quality compared to when African-American graduation rates decline.

After examining the reasons for the disparity, Flavin, who is an assistant professor of political science, and Hartney who is a political science Ph.D. candidate, conclude that the persistent achievement gap between white and African-American students stems from political rather than economic reasons.

Flavin explained that, since Brown v. Board, U.S. education reform under the No Child Left Behind legislation, which emphasizes accountability and high-stakes testing, has made it possible to better measure K-12 educational outcomes by race and ethnicity. No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002.

"The [achievement] gap narrowed from the time of Brown v. Board of Education onward until about the early 1990s when it stalled. That is, the gap's still there. It was getting smaller but now it's either the same or getting larger again," he said.

Flavin and Hartney's chief aim was to figure out why over the past 50 years the white/African-American achievement gap proved to be so persistent despite vocal commitments from lawmakers of all levels to its closure. The study, which is set to be published in the American Politics Journal, includes other troubling claims. The authors argue that country's K-12 education system could not only be contributing to but also could be exacerbating "political inequalities" between the races.

In the research, racial disparities in student outcomes were demonstrated using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test score data as well as high school graduation rates. The researchers measured 12 state-level reform policies tracked by the National Council on Teacher Quality to analyze state policymaking. Those policies include such measures as paying teachers more for teaching in high-poverty schools and tying teacher pay to student achievement.

To assess White and African-American education opinions, the researchers used a number of national public opinion polls and found that Whites "only seem to be alarmed when White students' performance drops," Flavin said.

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