research shows

Race, not just poverty, shapes who graduates in America — and other education lessons from a big new study

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The study landed with a gut punch.

Black men earn significantly less than white men, even when they were raised in families making the same amount. Poor black boys tend to stay poor as adults, and wealthy black boys are more likely to be poor as adults than to stay wealthy.

“Black men raised in the top 1 percent — by millionaires — were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000,” explained a New York Times article, complete with graphics to let you follow different kids’ paths.   

“It was sobering to read,” said Ryan Smith the executive director of Education Trust – West, an education and civil rights advocacy group. “Me being a black man, obviously I’ve experienced some of the data, but to see it in black and white was tough.”

The study, released through the Equality of Opportunity Project, is noteworthy in scope, using data on millions of people born between 1978 and 1983 in the U.S. And while it focuses on their economic outcomes, the research also looks at education, where the impact of racism on black boys is also apparent. Here’s what the study tells us about schools and education policy.

Poverty is not a proxy for race when it comes to academic outcomes.

That’s clear in the data: Black students are much less likely to graduate from high school and attend college than white students with the same family income.

The differences were substantial. Whereas poor white men graduated high school about 78 percent of the time, black men whose families had the same income graduated only 70 percent of the time. Disparities for women exist too, but were much smaller.

Education policy sometimes proceeds under the assumption that socioeconomic status matters, but that race and racism — aside from their impact on family income — don’t.

This study suggests that just isn’t so.

Here’s another example: On federal math and reading exams, white eighth graders who qualified for subsidized lunch (indicating low family income) slightly outscored black eighth graders who did not qualify.

This has real-world consequences. A number of states that do not have school funding gaps between low- and high-income students still have gaps between white students and students of color, one recent analysis found.

In California, where Smith of Education Trust works, the state’s funding formula sends more money to schools with many low-income students. The idea is to get extra help for students who need it. But there aren’t additional resources allocated for black students who are behind academically, regardless of their families’ income.

“There are middle-income and upper-income African American students who are chronically underperforming and yet we’ve not created a structure to actually support their success,” Smith said. His group is supporting a bill in the California state legislature that would increase funding for a district’s lowest performing subgroup of students that doesn’t already get extra money. In many cases, that means black students.

“If those are African-American students in your state, in your districts, in your school, then we must at least have the conversation about what we can do differently,” he said.

Test scores may miss something in black girls.

The authors note a puzzling phenomenon: On average, black girls score lower on tests than white girls with the same family income, but there’s no such disparity in their adult earnings. This suggests that test scores don’t fully capture the skills of black girls.

Ironically, Raj Chetty, coauthor of this study, is perhaps best known in the education world for pioneering but controversial research on the links between test scores and adult income. (That research focused on teachers’ impact on student scores, which was found to translate into higher earnings later in life.)

The latest study doesn’t overturn the previous research, but it does raise questions about whether test scores may be less accurate for certain groups of students.

Can good schools and neighborhoods help close these gaps?

The paper points out that kids of all races do better in certain neighborhoods. “Black and white boys who grow up in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, higher test scores, higher median rents, and more two-parent households tend to have higher incomes in adulthood,” they write.

The research finds that up to 25 percent of the black-white income disparity is connected to the neighborhood a student grows up in. That suggests that ensuring families of different races live in the same neighborhood and attend school together — integration — can have a significant effect.

But it’s unclear to what extent the quality of a school makes a difference. This study relies on average test scores to define school quality, though that doesn’t actually say much about how effective schools are.

We do know that early childhood education, school integration, educational spending, certain charter schools, and better teachers can benefit students in the long run, sometimes substantially so.

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.