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News Briefs from the American Sociological Review: Inequalities in Education


October issue of flagship journal reports on the black-white achievement gap; socioeconomic desegregation in schools; and class inequality in higher education

WASHINGTON, DC — Research published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review puts a spotlight on inequalities in education. The following briefs highlight selected sociological findings.

Racial Segregation Fuels Early Black-White
Achievement Gap, Data Suggest


Racial segregation of schools, and thereby segregated neighborhoods, appears to be a leading source of academic achievement disparities between young black and white children, according to research by sociologist Dennis J. Condron of Emory University.

Analyzing data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), Condron examines the perplexing role of schools in narrowing the achievement gap among students of varying social classes while widening the gap between black and white students.  He finds that between the fall and spring of first grade, black students’ reading and math skills fall almost two months behind those of white students.

The data suggest that school factors—especially racial segregation—primarily fuel this early black-white learning disparity, which stands in contrast to the primary role of non-school circumstances (e.g., family, health, social resources) in fueling achievement gaps by social class.

The research also indicates that regardless of social class, black students are less often taught by certified teachers than are white students, and black students are far more likely than white students to attend predominantly minority schools, high-poverty schools and schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Condron suggests that “real solutions to the black-white achievement gap lie far beyond schools and require changes to society more broadly,” such as reducing residential segregation and income and wealth inequality between blacks and whites. He also highlights the need for more studies with both fall and spring data, which would help researchers better understand when and how achievement gaps emerge.

(“Social Class, School and Non-School Environments, and Black/White Inequalities in Children’s Learning,” by Dennis J. Condron, Emory University, in the American Sociological Review, October 2009)

Socioeconomic Desegregation Alone Is Not Effective in Improving Classroom Performance


Although past research has linked academic achievement gains to socioeconomic desegregation in schools, a new analysis reveals some hidden academic and psychological risks of integrating low-income students in schools with predominantly middle- and upper-class student populations that might undercut such achievement gains.

Sociologist Robert Crosnoe of the University of Texas at Austin finds that low-income students were more likely to be enrolled in lower-level math and science courses when they attended schools with mostly middle- and upper-class students, versus schools with low-income student bodies. Likewise, low-income students who attended schools with wealthier student populations were more likely to feel isolated and have negative feelings about themselves. These results were even more pronounced for black and Hispanic students.

Using a sample of low-income public high school students from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Crosnoe finds support for the theory that students’ academic success is a function of how they view themselves and how others evaluate them relative to the academic skills and performance of their peers.

Crosnoe argues that achieving statistical representation in schools in not sufficient. He asserts that “desegregation efforts must attend to the social integration of students with lower socioeconomic status, as well as their distribution across courses.”

(“Low-Income Students and the Socioeconomic Composition of Public High Schools,” by Robert Crosnoe, University of Texas at Austin, in the American Sociological Review, October 2009)

Competition for College Admissions Perpetuates Class Divide in Higher Education


Increased competition for college admissions combined with the heightened emphasis on test scores in recent decades has fueled the growth of class inequality in American higher education, according to sociologist Sigal Alon of Tel-Aviv University.

Using data from three nationally representative surveys (National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, High School and Beyond, National Education Longitudinal Survey), Alon examines how social class affects college admissions of the high school graduating classes of 1972, 1982 and 1992.

Students from low socioeconomic strata in all three graduating classes were at a marked disadvantage in access to postsecondary education, and this disadvantage increased with college selectivity. Alon finds that the class divide grows during times of high competition in college admissions because privileged high school students are able to adapt to the tightening admissions requirements (i.e., the greater emphasis on test scores), while their underprivileged counterparts are unable to follow suit. This leads to a class-based polarization of test scores, restricting the opportunities of talented underprivileged seniors the most. During periods of declining competition in admissions, Alon finds a convergence in test scores among students of various socioeconomic statuses, leading to a smaller class divide in college enrollment.
   
“Strides toward equal opportunity in higher education will only be made when the screening tool used in college admissions becomes impervious to training or preparation,” said Alon. She predicts that the momentum for going SAT-optional among liberal arts colleges will fall short of equalizing opportunity as long as privileged youth can adapt to the new screening tool used by institutions to sort the influx of applicants. She suggests that class-based affirmative action is one solution to reduce inequality in admissions to four-year colleges.

(“The Evolution of Class Inequality in Higher Education:  Competition, Exclusion, and Adaptation,” by Sigal Alon, Tel-Aviv University, in the American Sociological Review, October 2009)

The research articles described above are available by request for members of the media. Contact Jackie Cooper, ASA’s Media Relations Officer, at pubinfo@asanet.org or (202) 247-9871.

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The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

About the American Sociological Association

The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.