Social Equity Theory and Racial-Ethnic Achievement Gaps

Social Equity Theory and Racial-Ethnic Achievement Gaps

Clark McKown Rush University Medical Center

In the United States, racial-ethnic differences on tests of school readiness and academic achievement continue. A complete understanding of the origins of racial-ethnic achievement gaps is still lacking. This article describes social equity theory (SET), which proposes that racial-ethnic achievement gaps originate from two kinds of social process, direct and signal influences, that these two kinds of processes operate across develop- mental contexts, and that the kind of influence and the setting in which they are enacted change with age. Evidence supporting each of SET’s key propositions is discussed in the context of a critical review of research on the Black–White achievement gap. Specific developmental hypotheses derived from SET are described, along with proposed standards of evidence for testing those hypotheses.

This article offers an account of the varied social processes that contribute to mean differences in test scores between children from different racial-ethnic groups, spanning preschool to high school (Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Lee, 2002; Lee & Burkam, 2002). In the United States, on measures of school readiness and academic achievement, Asian Americans achieve higher average scores than White students, who in turn achieve higher average scores than their Black and Latino peers (Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Lee, 2002; Reardon & Galindo, 2009). Because it has received a great deal of attention, the Black– White achievement gap is used to illustrate the major points of this article. The broad goal of this article, however, is to propose a model that applies to a variety of racial-ethnic and other achievement gaps.

Racial-ethnic achievement gaps are substantial life-span phenomena. By all accounts, the magni- tude of the Black–White achievement gap is consid- erable, ranging from .5 to 1.0 SD, depending on the sample and the measure (Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Lee, 2002; Reardon & Galindo, 2009; Reardon & Robinson, 2007; Vanneman, Hamilton, Anderson, & Rahman, 2009). The Black–White achievement gap affects individuals and the generation to which they belong, beginning in early childhood and spanning

all educational levels (Farkas, 2003). In terms of school readiness, research has consistently demon- strated that prior to school entry, Black students achieve lower average scores than White students (Brooks-Gunn, Klebanov, & Duncan, 1996; Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1994; Lee & Burkam, 2002). Over the course of elementary school, the Black–White achievement gap appears to grow (Farkas, 2003; Fryer & Levitt, 2004, 2005; Phillips, Crouse, & Ralph, 1998).

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