Despite Equity Rhetoric, Progressive Cities Have Larger Student Achievement Gaps than Conservative Ones

by | Jan 21, 2020

Average Black-White, Latino-White Math gaps in progressive and conservative citiesA new report shows progressive cities do a worse job at closing black-white and Latino-white achievement gaps in math and reading than conservative cities. Progressive cities have bigger graduation rate gaps between the races as well. On average, progressive cities have an average black-white math proficiency gap of 41.3 percentage points compared to the conservative average of 26.2 points, roughly 15 percentage points larger. Similarly, the Latino-white math gap average for the progressive and conservative cities observed were 34.4 points and 19.1 points, respectively. The trend holds across reading and graduation rate gaps too.

For context, in San Francisco, the most progressive city in the country, 70% of white students are proficient in math, compared to only 12% of black students, a 58-point gap. In D.C., the second most progressive city, 83% of white students are proficient readers, compared to only 23 percent of black students, a 60-point gap.

Compare that to Mesa, the most conservative city in the country, in which 59% of white students are math proficient compared to 25% of black students, a 34 point gap. Not great, but significantly smaller. Even if white students there were performing as high as white students in San Francisco, the gap would still be smaller in Mesa.

Brightbeam, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit, announced these findings Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. day, in a 33-page report called The Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray Their Commitment to Educational Opportunity for All. As an employee of brightbeam, I contributed to drafting the report.

Math Proficiency rates in San Francisco and Washington D.C..Researchers looked at math and reading proficiency gaps and graduation rate gaps in the 12 most conservative and the 12 most progressive cities. To avoid bias in the results they focused specifically on the gaps between black and white students and Latino and white students in each city, instead of raw proficiency rates.

The most conservative and most progressive cities were identified using already-established research from Chris Tausanovtich and Christopher Warshaw. Topping the list for progressives include cities like Washington, D.C., Seattle, Oakland, Boston, Minneapolis and Detroit. The most conservative cities include Oklahoma City, Virginia Beach, Colorado Springs, Jacksonville, Florida, Arlington, Texas and Anaheim. 

In Jacksonville, black students are 27 points behind their white peers in math, and 30 points behind in reading. Latino students there are 14 and 17 points behind their white peers in the same subjects.

Racial achievement gaps, as discouraging as they may be for black and Latino families, are not a new phenomenon, especially in cities. What is new, according to Chris Stewart, brightbeam CEO, is that these gaps are larger in places “you wouldn’t expect.”

Progressive leaders often frame their policy proposals and their criticisms in terms of the impact on underprivileged people. Progressive rhetoric from leaders and lay people often reflects what I believe are sincere values of equity and a concern for those who have been “left out and left behind,” — for those those who have the greatest obstacles and the least opportunities. Given those values and the fact that progressives hold political and administrative power in their cities, the power to set tax rates, allocate spending and set policy, we would expect that they would live up to their own values and have the most equitable education systems in the country. But they don’t. 

That doesn’t mean the most conservative cities are off the hook. A 26-point average black-white gap in math proficiency and a nearly 27-point gap average in reading in those cities is nothing to celebrate. But conservative-city gaps are considerably smaller than those found in progressive cities. In fact, in some conservative cities, at least one of the gaps has been effectively closed or even erased the gap in at least of of the academic categories we studied. For example, Anaheim, California, which has the same state standards for graduation as Oakland or San Francisco has a one-point gap between black and white students, and no gap between Latino and white students who graduate at a rate of 84 percent.

Researchers controlled for student population and ruled out the possibility that progressive cities, being somewhat larger on average than conservative ones, were at a disadvantage because of city size. They also looked at a number of other factors, including the percentage of white students in a district, income inequality levels in the cities, and more. Nothing they looked at made a meaningful dent in the results. The biggest predictor for a city having larger achievement gaps was whether it was dominated by progressives. 

While the correlation between being a progressive city and having larger racial achievement gaps is striking, the study makes no claim as to what causes the larger gaps. We cannot say, based on the data if a certain policy, practice, or mindset common to progressive cities is to blame for these results. 

The report includes recommendations for “all leaders with stewardship over children, elected, appointed or otherwise” to call their cities together to understand the issues, make better plans to address them, and share better information about student performance with parents. It invites parents and others to spread the word, demand a plan from their leaders and “make their voices heard in the halls of power.”

1 Comment

  1. kitty

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