So, about those single parent families: I myself had two children out of wedlock. They are raised in what the census (still) defines as a “female headed household, no spouse present.” What can we conclude from these descriptions? Common stereotypes in the media and elsewhere might lead one to believe that my children are poor, urban, minority, and on welfare. And that would be wrong on all counts. They even have two parents.
Not only don’t the stereotypes accurately describe my family, they tend to misrepresent most single parent families, which happen to be white, suburban and headed by working parents. They absolutely fail to grasp the diversity and complexity of the large group that is “single parents.”
Stereotypes oversimplify, overgeneralize and frequently involve classic fallacies in reasoning, including the ecological fallacy and the exception fallacy. In the ecological fallacy, conclusions are made about individuals based on group data. In the exception fallacy, conclusions are made about a group or class, based on attributes of an individual. In both cases a plausible argument is made, but because it relies on false or invalid inferences, it misrepresents the situation.
These kinds of stereotypes and logical fallacies are at the center of our community discussions of race and the achievement gap.
While it is well known that factors like family background, concentrated poverty and failing schools are major contributors to the racial achievement gap, other factors such as stereotype threat, tracking, expectations, and test bias also play a role.
Most national data on the racial achievement gap captures a broad difference in student outcomes between mostly minority children in poor, urban districts and mostly white ones in affluent, suburban towns. Current research comparing students from families with incomes in the top 10% and the bottom 10% suggests that socioeconomic inequality now plays a greater role than race in explaining the achievement gap at the national level.
But even researchers looking at national level data find that it is hard to pinpoint the relative contributions of between-school factors (as when comparing, say, students in Millburn and Newark) and within-school factors (as when comparing subgroups in our district). Successful schools in poor communities, and achievement gaps in affluent ones reveal the complexity at more local levels and show that what happens in schools matters just as much as student background.
This is complicated stuff. Certainly it’s a lot for lay people to try to sort out. But to understand our achievement gaps we can start by paying more attention to stereotypes, and learning more about who we are in our community.
We do have considerable socioeconomic diversity in our community; our families—black and white—range from lower income to affluent. Statistically speaking, about two-thirds of our schoolchildren are middle or working class, and most of the rest are affluent. (Virtually none are in the bottom 10% examined in the study cited above.) Although a small percentage of our children live in low income families, we remain a relatively affluent district, very different from a large urban one such as neighboring Newark.
The poverty rate in Newark is upwards of 25%. It’s scarcely measurable in our towns. While we do have a modest (about 20%) free and reduced lunch population (defined as 135% to 185% of the poverty level) and some of those students do have greater needs, most urban districts have two or three times as many students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, with the percentage at some schools as high as 75%.
Lower income families do have to stretch to live here, but they are not the very poor captured in national statistics. In Maplewood’s most moderate income neighborhood, the median family income is twice that of Newark as whole. The college educated population in that neighborhood is nearly four times greater than in Newark’s. Moderate income families in our towns have high rates of employment, and fewer stay at home parents, than more affluent ones. Even our least advantaged, highest needs students live in a community with strong, stable neighborhoods and good schools.
And most moderate income families invest in their children and seek to enrich their lives, just like more affluent families. Off the top of my head I can think of non-affluent kids who have gone to Kumon tutoring and Kean College for Kids, who swim competitively, play soccer, football, cheerlead, take classes in dance, musical instruments and martial arts, visit the Newark Museum, sing in church choirs, etc. But these involved children are seldom found in many discussions of the achievement gap which question some families’ values or commitment to education.
So why is there so often so much talk about demographic and social factors in the achievement gap that to a large degree do not apply in our district, and why so much resistance to talking about within-school factors that might affect it—like leveling, in-school expectations, or stereotype threat?
(Data come from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey and the 2010 census.)