When there’s inequity in learning, it’s usually baked into life, Harvard University analysts conclude. one awarded expert called high-quality education “the new civil rights battleground”

if inequality starts anywhere, many scholars agree, it’s with faulty education. Conversely, a strong education can act as the bejewelled key that opens gates through every other aspect of inequality, whether political, economic, racial, judicial, gender- or health-based. Simply put, a topflight education usually changes lives for the better—and yet, in the world’s most prosperous major nation, it remains an elusive goal for millions of children and teenagers.
The revolutionary concept of free, non-sectarian public schools spread across America in the 19th century. by 1970, America had the world’s leading educational system, and until 1990 the gap between minority and white students, while clear, was narrowing—but educational gains in this country have plateaued since then, and the gap between white and minority students has proven stubbornly difficult to close, says ronald ferguson, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and faculty director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap initiative. that gap extends along class lines as well. in recent years, scholars such as ferguson, who is an economist, have puzzled over the ongoing achievement gap and what to do about it, even as other nations’ school systems at first matched and then surpassed their US peers.
Among the 34 market-based, democracy-leaning countries in the organization for economic Cooperation and Development (oeCD), the United States ranks around 20th annually, earning average or below-average grades in reading, science, and mathematics. by the eighth grade, Harvard economist, roland G. fryer Jr. noted last year, only 44% of American students are proficient in reading and maths. the proficiency of African-American students, many of them in underperforming schools, is even lower.
“the position of US black students is truly alarming,” wrote fryer, the Henry lee Professor of economics, who used the oeCD rankings as a metaphor for minority standing educationally. “if they were to be considered a country, they would rank just below mexico in last place.” Harvard Graduate School of education (HGSe) Dean James e. ryan, a former public interest lawyer, says geography has immense power in determining educational opportunity in America. As a scholar, he has studied how policies and the law affect learning, and how conditions are often vastly unequal. His book, five miles away, a world apart (2010), is a case study of the disparity of opportunity in two richmond, Va., schools, one grimly urban and the other richly suburban. Geography, he says, mirrors achievement levels.

“right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child’s ZiP code and her chances of success,” said ryan. “our education system, traditionally thought of as the chief mechanism to address the opportunity gap, instead too often reflects and entrenches existing societal inequities.” Urban schools demonstrate the problem. in new york City, for example, only 8% of black males graduating from high school in 2014 were prepared for college-level work, according to the CUny institute for education Policy, with latinos close behind at 11%. the preparedness rates for Asians and whites—48% and 40%, respectively—were unimpressive too, but nonetheless were firmly on the other side of the achievement gap. in some impoverished urban pockets, the racial gap is even larger.
in Washington D.C., 8% of black eighth-graders are proficient in maths, while 80% of their white counterparts are. fryer said that in kindergarten, black children are already eight months behind their white peers in learning. by third grade, the gap is bigger, and by eighth grade is larger still. According to a recent report by the education Commission of the States, black and Hispanic students from kindergarten to the 12th grade perform on a par with the white students who languish in the lowest quartile of achievement.
there was once great faith and hope in America’s school systems. the rise of quality public education a century ago “was probably the best public policy decision Americans have ever made because it simultaneously raised the whole growth rate of the country for most of the 20th century, and it levelled the playing field,” said robert Putnam, the Peter and isabel malkin Professor of Public Policy at HKS, who has written several best-selling books touching on inequality, including bowling alone: the collapse and revival of the American Community and our kids—the American Dream in crisis.
Historically, upward mobility in America was characterized by each generation becoming better educated than the previous one, said Harvard economist lawrence Katz but that trend, a central tenet of the nation’s success mythology, has slackened, particularly for minorities. “thirty years ago, the typical American had two more years of schooling than their parents. today, we have the most educated group of Americans, but they only have about four more years of schooling, so that’s one part of mobility not keeping up in the way we’ve invested in education in the past,” Katz said.
As globalization has transformed and sometimes undercut the American economy, “education is not keeping up,” he said. “there’s continuing growth of demand for more abstract, higher-end skills” that schools aren’t delivering, “and then that feeds into a weakening of institutions such as unions and minimum-wage protections.” fryer is among a diffuse cohort of Harvard faculty and researchers using academic tools to understand the achievement gap and the many reasons behind problematic schools.
His venue is the education innovation laboratory, where he is faculty director. “We use big data and causal methods,” he said of his approach to the issue. fryer, who is African-American, grew up poor in a segregated florida neighbourhood. He argues that outright discrimination has lost its power as a primary driver behind inequality, and uses economics as “a rational forum” for discussing social issues.

The quality of public schools teaching in the USA has been declining in the last decades.

fryer set out in 2004 to use an economist’s data and statistical tools to answer why black students often do poorly in school compared with whites. His years of research have convinced him that good schools would close the education gap faster and better than addressing any other social factor, including curtailing poverty and violence, and he believes that the quality of education from kindergarten to grade 12 matters above all. fryer, supporting his belief is research that says the number of schools achieving excellent student outcomes is a large enough sample to prove that much better performance is possible. Despite the poor performance by many US states, some have shown that strong results are possible on a broad scale. for instance, if massachusetts were a nation, it would rate among the best-performing countries.
At HGSe, where ferguson is faculty co-chair as well as director of the Achievement Gap initiative, many factors are probed. in the past 10 years, ferguson, who is African-American, has studied every identifiable element contributing to unequal educational outcomes but lately he is looking hardest at improving children’s earliest years, from infancy to age three. in addition to an organization he founded called the tripod Project, which measures student feedback on learning, he launched the boston basics project, with support from the black Philanthropy fund, boston’s mayor, and others. the first phase of the outreach campaign, a booklet, videos, and spot ads, starts with advice to parents of children aged three or younger. “maximize love, manage stress” is its mantra and its foundational imperative, followed by concepts such as “talk, sing, and point.” (“talking,” said ferguson, “is teaching.”) in early childhood, “the difference in life experiences begins at home.”

Fryer and ferguson agree that the achievement gap starts early. At age one, white, Asian, black, and Hispanic children score virtually the same in what ferguson called “skill patterns” that measure cognitive ability among toddlers, including examining objects, exploring purposefully, and “expressive jabbering,” but by age two, gaps are apparent, with black and Hispanic children scoring lower in expressive vocabulary, listening comprehension, and other indicators of acuity. that suggests educational achievement involves more than just schooling, which typically starts at age five. Key factors in the gap, researchers say, include poverty rates (which are three times higher for blacks than for whites), diminished teacher and school quality, unsettled neighbourhoods, ineffective parenting, personal trauma, and peer group influence, which only strengthens as children grow older.
“Peer beliefs and values,” said ferguson, get “trapped in culture” and are compounded by the outsized influence of peers and the “pluralistic ignorance” they spawn. fryer’s research, for instance, says that the reported stigma of “acting white” among many black students is true. the better they do in school, the fewer friends they have—while for whites who are perceived as smarter, there’s an opposite social effect. the researchers say that family upbringing matters, in all its crisscrossing influences and complexities, and that often undercuts minority children, who can come from poor or troubled homes.
“Unequal outcomes,” he said, “are from, to a large degree, inequality in life experiences.” trauma also subverts achievement, whether through family turbulence, street violence, bullying, sexual abuse, or intermittent homelessness. Such factors can lead to behaviours in school that reflect a pervasive form of childhood post-traumatic stress disorder.
At Harvard’s Project Zero, a non-profit organisation called the family Dinner Project, is scraping away at the achievement gap from the ground level by pushing for families to gather around the meal table, which traditionally was a lively and comforting artifact of nuclear families, stable wages, close-knit extended families, and culturally shared values. lynn barendsen, the project’s executive director, believes that shared mealtimes improve reading skills, spur better grades and larger vocabularies, and fuel complex conversations. interactive mealtimes provide a learning experience of their own, she said, along with structure, emotional support, a sense of safety, and family bonding.
Even a modest jump in shared mealtimes could boost a child’s academic performance, she said. “We’re not saying families have to be perfect,” she said, acknowledging dinnertime impediments such as full schedules, rudimentary cooking skills, the lure of technology, and the demands of single parenting. “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Whether poring over fryer’s big data or barendsen’s family dinner project, there is one commonality for Harvard researchers dealing with inequality in education: the issue’s vast complexity. the achievement gap is a creature of interlocking factors that are hard to unpack constructively.