Sunday, 8 May 2016

Graph of the week: Race and money affect school performance

The New York Times brings the following interactive graphic (I encourage you to click on the link and try it out; you can track direct comparisons in performance by race and wealth - it's striking):

Click to enlarge. Source: NYT
There appears to be a large positive correlation between race, money and school performance. Kids coming from rich, white districts significantly outperform kids coming from poorer and/or Hispanic and black neighborhoods. The graph maps every school district in the US and compares the school performance of six graders (in reading and math). Even this simple correlation is very unveiling. There are three clusters clearly separated by both wealth and race. White kids, coming from upper and upper middle class families tend to be the only group that outperforms the average in their school grades. In fact, the very top performers include no single black or Hispanic district. (Bear in mind that the comparison aren't people, but school districts - so there might very well be top performers coming from outside the wealthier and/or white families, but since we're dealing with averages, the performances of all top performers get cancelled out.)

Even when the comparison is made across similar districts (in socioeconomic background) the results are the same. There is no non-white district that beats a predominantly white district (even if they are equally wealthy or poor): 

Comparing similar districts. Click to enlarge. Source: NYT
This says a lot about social mobility in the US. If a smart kid is born into a dominantly black or Hispanic (poorer) district, he or she will most likely have a much lower probability of good school performance and subsequent success than if the same kid is born into a dominantly white (richer) district. The environment these kids find themselves in is extremely important. It very often makes the key, invisible difference, between failure and success. 

In other words, kids born into poor black families are already by birth disenfranchised. They are born unequal, as they will lack the same opportunity as kids born in richer white neighborhoods. Environment matters. This is a sad truth about the US, as the equal opportunity assumption clearly does not apply. Sure, the geniuses will very often get picked out, but how many of these kids will ever get the chance to prove that they are geniuses? 

Gladwell had a lot to say about that in Outliers, however mostly relating the differences in income, not race. It's the way high and upper middle class families breed their kids for success that makes them more likely to achieve it. The differences can even be more subtle than that - for example, the way the kids spend their vacations. Gladwell compares the performance of richer and poorer kids (coming from richer and poorer families) during the school year and actually finds that poor kids don't lag in performance, they can actually surpass the rich kids during the year. This is (albeit partial) evidence that the schools work in enhancing student knowledge. The problem is the summer, where richer kids practice in prep for school, while poorer kids don't (and most likely spend their summers watching TV or playing). This yields an immediate high gap between the richer and the poorer kids, that the poor kids have a hard time catching up, even if their semester performances can improve. However, these comparisons are done within-district, not between them. The between comparison is due to a multitude of other factors; for example, richer parents will hire tutors, enroll their kinds in a number of extracurricular activities, and in due time, these kids will accumulate a higher human capital making the performance gap larger and larger. 

On the other hand, in poorer neighborhoods, the parents on average do not or cannot afford to encourage the same type of behavior. In addition, the schools in poorer districts, with a high concentration of poor students, usually also lack the funding to attract the better teachers or to provide the same facilities as schools in richer districts (e.g. computers and IT equipment). The reason is that they also lack the appropriate funding but also in most cases an incentive to change that. Consider the example of the schools that "beat the odds": 
In one school district that appears to have beaten the odds, Union City, N.J., students consistently performed about a third of a grade level above the national average on math and reading tests even though the median family income is just $37,000 and only 18 percent of parents have a bachelor’s degree. About 95 percent of the students are Hispanic, and the vast majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Silvia Abbato, the district’s superintendent, said she could not pinpoint any one action that had led to the better scores. She noted that the district uses federal funds to help pay for teachers to obtain graduate certifications as literacy specialists, and it sponsors biweekly parent nights with advice on homework help for children, nutrition and immigration status.
The district regularly revamps the curriculum and uses quick online tests to gauge where students need more help or whether teachers need to modify their approaches.
“It’s not something you can do overnight,” Ms. Abbato said. “We have been taking incremental steps everywhere.”
All this still doesn't explain the race effect. As the second graph shows, even for districts with the same economic standards, there is a clear difference in performance based on race. This isn't conclusive of a causal relationship however. Perhaps it's not race but something else that characterizes minority districts (like poor schools) that drives outcomes. Either way the picture is worrying and definitely not encouraging in light of US problems with higher inequality and the ever increasing lack of social mobility.

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