Disparities associated with race and class have long vexed this country. But as the civil rights laws and school desegregation mandates took hold in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the academic performance of poor, black and Latino students improved significantly.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a longstanding standardized test measuring student achievement, showed, for example, that gaps in reading and math scores between black and white high school students nationally were roughly halved between 1971 and 1996, Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks and UCLA public policy professor Meredith Phillips noted in their 1998 book, “The Black-White Test Score Gap.”
But by the late 1990s, as court orders to desegregate were lifted, schools quietly re-segregated, and test scores and metrics began showing diminishing progress. As the 21st century began, education researchers were baffled. When the “No Child Left Behind Act” was signed in 2001 by President George W. Bush, closing the achievement gap was its explicit aim — it was even in the title of the law.
The act focused states on the gap, but neither it nor subsequent bipartisan reform attempts have had much success in moving the needle. President Barack Obama in 2010 tried “Race to the Top” financial incentives, states including California have initiated more rigorous Common Core standards, and Congress combined a number of approaches in 2015 with the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” but progress has been slow.