Class matters in educational performance. Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske have recently persuasively argued this point in the New York Times and at a recent conference. One analysis Ladd conducted in the conference paper included academically high-performing countries like South Korea and Finland. As Ladd illustrates, in these two countries (as well as in lower-performing countries) the most privileged students do best academically and the least privileged do worst.
This gradient of academic achievement exists despite the fact that South Korean and Finnish students have among the highest median test scores in the world. The students cannot be accused of coming from cultures that do not value education. Both countries are also racially and ethnically homogenous. Thus, neither culture nor race can be used to explain why poorer Korean and Finnish children do worse in school than their richer peers. Class matters.
Class matters in the United States also. Ladd and Fiske report that “data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress [in the United States] show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.”
This information helps us to understand the black-white achievement gap and its persistence. The child poverty rate for African Americans is regularly more than three times the rate for whites. Since class matters for educational achievement, it is not realistic to expect to close the black-white achievement gap while the economic gaps between blacks and whites are so large.
This is why I argue in A jobs-centered approach to African American community development that a jobs program for black communities is an important part of improving educational outcomes for black children. As the figure shows, there is a fairly strong relationship between the black child poverty rate and the black unemployment rate. In the early 1980s, the increase in black unemployment corresponds with an increase in black child poverty. In the late 1990s, the decrease in black unemployment matches a downward trend in black child poverty. The uptick in black unemployment in recent years is reflected in a recent rise in black child poverty.
If we reduce black unemployment, we reduce black child poverty. Fewer black children in poverty set the stage for higher black student achievement.
Some people believe that education is the key to lift blacks out of poverty, but it is important to realize the role that poverty and other forms of economic disadvantage play in black educational outcomes. Economic inequality plays an important role in unequal educational outcomes.