Study Finds That Income Trumps Race in Explaining Academic Achievement Gap

A new study by Sean F. Reardon, associate professor of education and director of the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Program in Quantitative Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University, finds that income inequality had a far more profound impact on the academic achievement gap than racial differences. Dr. Reardon’s research finds that the achievement gap between children from high-income and low-income families is significantly greater than the achievement gap between White and Black students.

Professor Reardon states that a half-century ago, the racial gap was one and a half times greater than the gap between students from high- and low-income families. The reason for the achievement gap between students from high- and low-income families is not because children from poor families are doing worse than in the past. In fact, their test scores tend to be higher. But the gap is greater due to the fact that children from high-income families are doing much better than was the case in the past.

A copy of the study may be downloaded here. The study is also a chapter in the book Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).

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  1. The result that race does not cause achievement differences is, and should be, underwhelming unless one takes the position that distinct, clearly identifiable “races” are located in an intellectual hierarchy. If that was an assumption of the study which was not borne out, then shame on the researcher for assuming such nonsense. I also wonder if the author is suggesting that income and wealth differences are unrelated to racism and racial discrimination.

    Finally, what will it take for people to be as critical of the “racial achievement gap” industry as they are energized in seeking to justify, in one way or another (because they are Black or because they have lower incomes, and so on), that Black people are intellectually inferior. That seems to be the whole premise of the “gap” discourse. Prettying it up with references to so-called objective test score differences, which don’t measure intelligence, just helps to overwhelm the public into believing that such a gap is real and indisputable.

    Assuming such a gap exists and it was reversed tomorrow, how long does anyone think it would take to put it back in its “proper” place? How quickly does anyone think education standards would change? Does anyone think significantly more Black students would get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford, becoming the majority even because they “outrank” other students? Of course not. Look at what happens when just a handful of qualified Black students enter such contexts. All kinds of angst and talk of reverse discrimination and racial preference. Yet, when those same contexts were nearly all-white, perhaps the epitome of racial preference, we are asked to assume that merit prevailed. The gap talk is rubbish, nothing more than societal and institutional sanctioning of insulting Black identity, yet again.

    • Mathprof, there are three threads within the literature on racial gaps in academic achievement. One, thankfully the least frequent, fits the elements of your critique: authors seek to reassert the notion of intrinsic differences between those categorized as members of different races as the source of such disparities. Another argues that differences in “culture” – despite the reality that racial groups are not cultural in nature – are responsible for such gaps, citing issues with childrearing practices or “values” about education as the reason for different outcomes. While such differences exist, they are not isolated to racial groups – see Annette Lareau’s research on childrearing and family status.

      The final category sees race not as a characteristic of people, but rather of society – its norms, structures and institutions. In that vein, continuing to look for racial disparities reflects a desire to understand the ways in which the racialization of human beings continues to impact their access to resources and opportunities. Interestingly, one consequence of work like that described in this piece is that many will assert that “race is no longer important.” As you note above, the tendency to assert that class “trumps” race is blind to the ways in which the racial organization of society contributes in powerful ways to the socioeconomic fortunes of Americans.

      Another critical issue to be assessed is whether the pattern in question reflects the increasing economic bifurcation of American society, where increasing concentrations of wealth and income may contribute to the improved academic success of children from high income households.

      Nonetheless, we should be cautious about over-reacting to the findings reported here – the author seems to ultimately argue that SES is more powerful in his analysis than race. He is not reported to have argued that race has *disappeared* as an influence; rather the trend he seems to point to is the increasing significance of income as a factor in academic outcomes. We should all read the report to determine how far the results support any such contention.

      • Dr. Graves,

        Your reply and comments are much appreciated. Yes, I am aware of the three strands to which you refer. In fact, while my own scholarship is grounded in the study of racialization processes, I do acknowledge the role that economics can play in schooling outcomes. Implicit in my first post was the suggestion that racialization processes and racism are not easily disentangled from economics and vice versa. More generally, I find that while the first perspective is contested in the academy, it often prevails in the general public and contributes to colloquial understandings of “racial achievement gaps” as somehow due to race. I also encourage folks to read the study with both critical and appreciative eyes.

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