Black-White Achievement Gap Makes Little Progress Since 1960s


Black-white achievement gap makes little progress since 1960s
At current rate, closing the disparities to take centuries
Greatest gains in South which has caught up with the rest of the country

January 7, 2016—When Congress, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, called upon the U.S. Office of Education to commission a national survey of educational opportunity in the United States, its primary goal was to advance racial equity in education. A major study, issued in 1966 by James S. Coleman and his co-authors, documented extreme differences in student performance by race. During the ensuing decades major desegregation and compensatory education programs were undertaken with the intention of rectifying these racial disparities. Yet in a new Education Next article, released on the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report, Eric Hanushek of Stanford University finds that recent black-white achievement gaps in reading and math are nearly as large as they were in 1965.

Hanushek’s analysis compares achievement from the original 1966 Coleman Report with that from the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress (see Figure 1 below). In 1965, the average black 12th grader was 1.1 standard deviations (s.d.) behind the average white 12th grader in both math and reading. This placed the average black 12th grader at the 13th percentile of the score distribution for white students —meaning that 87 percent of white 12th graders placed ahead of the average black 12th grader. In 2013, the average black 12th grader had moved to only the 19th percentile of the white distribution in math (0.9 s.d. gap) and the 22nd percentile in reading (0.8 s.d. gap).

In the South gaps closed by 0.5 s.d. in reading and 0.3 s.d. in math, but in other regions gaps are closing more slowly and in the Midwest they have increased in reading. As a consequence, the racial disparities in student achievement are no longer larger in the South than in other parts of the country.

If improvements continue at the same rate as seen since 1965, it will be two and a half centuries until racial achievement gaps are closed in math and over one and a half centuries for them to close in reading. “If the Coleman Report was expected to mobilize the resources of the nation’s schools in pursuit of racial equity, it failed,” says Hanushek.

Hanushek’s analysis also examines and updates the Coleman Report’s conclusions on how family background and school resources influence student achievement. These conclusions—that families were most important in student achievement and that school resources did not matter—overshadowed the findings on racial inequity in achievement. Coleman’s analysis, while flawed, positively transformed education policy discussions so that today they focus on school outcomes rather than school inputs.

To receive an embargoed copy of “What Matters for Student Achievement: Updating Coleman on the influence of families and schools” or to speak with Eric Hanushek, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Wednesday, January 13 on and will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of Education Next, on newsstands by March 1, 2016. The issue is devoted to a discussion of the impact of the Coleman report over the half century since its release.

Figure 1. The Black-White Achievement Gap Persists


About the Author: Eric A. Hanushek is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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