John Thompson: The Black-White achievement gap

John Thompson is an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at He contributes regularly to our blog on education issues.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools has launched a campaign to close the “achievement gap.” To their credit, the school system acknowledges that our gap between Black and White student performance has grown since the federal No Child Left Behind law increased investments for schools serving poor children of color. The problem is that the OKCPS, like most school systems, has focused on instructional reforms, despite the social science and cognitive science explaining why those efforts are doomed without first addressing deeper issues. As was recently explained by Jonathan Zimmerman in the New York Review of Books, if we believe in the social science that was a foundation of the Brown v. Topeka desegregation case, we must admit that NCLB-driven policies are “doomed.”

A study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) titled  “The Black-White Achievement Gap, When the Progress Stopped,” shows that reductions in the achievement gap stalled for children born in the late 1960s. Family poverty, which has grown since industrial jobs started to disappear in the 1970s, is the strongest predictor of educational underachievement. Worse, ETS showed that 78 percent of Black children born from 1985 to 2000 were born in “high-disadvantage neighborhoods,” with another 21 percent being born in “medium-disadvantage” communities. Worse still, a new Australian study has shown that growing up in a poor family, in combination with living in a poor neighborhood, multiplies the damage. Then when those children are left behind in underperforming neighborhood schools, learning is disrupted by a “perfect storm” of peer effects.

The decline of blue collar jobs has hit Black males harder than Black females, as has the huge increase in the incarceration rate. With so many Black men out of the job market, and with so many institutionalized fathers, too many Black boys have suffered from the lack of role models who are needed to pass on socio-emotional or “soft skills” required in school.

I was born in 1953 as “Pax Americana” was beginning. Most Whites, and some Blacks, who were born at that time benefited from the G.I. Bill and the rest of the social safety net that helped to create the greatest economic boom in history. We practiced delayed gratification, and with the miracle of compound interest, a great middle class was created. Blacks, who also practiced delayed gratification, were born into a world where the last sharecroppers were being “tractored out,” and where the prison industrial complex maintained much of the oppression of slavery.

ETS explains that 9 percent of Black male dropouts who were born, as I was, in the early 1950s  eventually were institutionalized, as opposed to 2 percent of similar Whites. Among Black male dropouts born in the early 1970s as industrial work started to disappear, 26 percent eventually were institutionalized. It is estimated that 2/3rds of today’s Black male dropouts will serve time in prison. Oklahoma, which leads the world in incarcerating women, and has nearly 27,000 children with a parent in prison, must face the implications of this dropout-to-prison pipeline. To break this cycle, we must invest in “community schools” that bring a wide diversity of adult mentors into the lives of children. We must teach children the interpersonal skills necessary to be students before we can expect increases in the academic skills of children from generational poverty concentrated in segregated schools.  To close the achievement gap, we must heed the words of Columbia University’s Richard Rothstein, “Skills beget skills, success breeds success, and the provision of positive experiences early in life is considerably less expensive and more effective than the cost and effectiveness of corrective intervention at a later age.”


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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