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Thompson: Explaining the Achievement Gap

Whenworkdi The closest thing to a "smoking gun" found by ETS in the report I described in my previous post is the percentage of children born in "high disadvantage neighborhoods." It shows that 78% of Black children born from 1985 to 2000 were born in those neighborhoods with another 21% being born in medium disadvantage communities. ETS's historical explanation of why the narrowing of the achievement gap stopped in the 1990s supports my (and others') hypothesis that the turning point was the deindustrialization of America, sparked by the 1973 energy crisis.  The employment rate of Black high school dropouts decreased from 69% for males born in the early 1950s to 47% for males born between 1970 and 1974  The percentage of Black male dropouts born as the old industrial system started to die, who were institutionalized, was 26% - five times greater than comparable Whites.

WilsonWork did not disappear for college graduates, as was demonstrated by the employment rate of 89% for Black males with 16 years of education who were born in the early 1970s.

Similarly, progress for Black women also stalled in the 1990s, but women fared much better than men. The high school graduation rates of Black women born between 1963 and 1964, and those born between 1980 and 1981, remained the same at 66%. For Black males born in those years, the graduation rate declined from 53% to 43%. This lends support to William Julius Wilson’s theory on the importance of "soft skills" in a post-industrial world. The implication is that many men may have developed non-cognitive skills that were appropriate in the rough and ready blue collar world, but that were outmoded for today’s global economy. Instantly destroying the economic futures of uneducated men did not turn out to be a good recipe for cultivating non-cognitive skills necessary for modern schooling and passing those socio-emotional skills down to subsequent generations.

If my theory is correct and we are seeing the legacy of the rapid collapse of industrial jobs, then we should also be seeing a different pattern for the children of more educated Blacks. Fortunately, ETS shows a "steady narrowing" of the Black-White achievement gap for high school graduates completing a "mid level" curriculum from 1990, with "convergence in 2005."


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Elijah Anderson, the author of "Code of the Street," also holds that perpetually high unemployment rate ultimately responsible for the development of "street" culture. Those behaviors are a coping strategy to an environment where there are basically no opportunities for young men to engage in paid, socially-mainstream types of work. It's a fascinating book.

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