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Achievement Gaps
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Can the Achievement Gaps be Overcome?

  1. How to Close the Achievement Gaps: Research and Policy

    1. Social and Cultural Factors

How to Fix the Earning Gap? Start with Inequality in the Labor Market

Jared Bernstein and Richard Rothstein emphasize the persistence of discrimination in the labor market as the most important explanation for the earnings gap between black and white workers.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Bernstein, J., & Rothstein, R. (1998, November/December). The black-white test score gap.The American Prospect,9. Retrieved August 8, 2002, from

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

With their focus on test scores as predictors of earnings, Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips overlook more significant factors in reducing the black-white test gap. Bernstein and Rothstein cite two specific factors of major importance: discrimination in the labor market and the decline of institutions that formerly lifted wages of non-college-educated workers.

Inequality Goes Deeper: Labor Market Discrimination

Bernstein and Rothstein do not dispute Jencks and Phillips's claim that eliminating the test-score gap would make a big difference in black earnings and other areas such as health, crime, and family structure. Instead, they argue that a more effective remedy to all these problems would be to address discrimination in the labor market.

Discrimination persists at a variety of levels. The result is that the labor market is not as “meritocratic” as Jencks and Phillips claim. Therefore, merely correcting the test gap will not automatically erase the earnings gap until the discrimination itself is corrected. Discrimination is deeply rooted and pervasive, Bernstein and Rothstein write:

"We believe that Jencks and Phillips underappreciate that the cultural differences which contribute to a test score gap may not be wholly separable from economic explanations. As John Ogbu—whom Jencks and Phillips credit for making cultural explanations respectable—has argued, relative cultural aversion to schooling may itself partly result from fatalism about future success in finding a job." (Jared Bernstein and Richard Rothstein section, ¶ 9)

Focus on the Right Institutions

Bernstein and Rothstein caution against policies that address only schools for the test and earnings gap. Instead of just “blaming the schools,” institutions that have a direct effect on the labor market also have to be factored into an explanation of the gap. For example, they cite changes in the workplace that hinder union organization, as well as reduced enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Together with other trends, such as the loss of protective trade policies and the lowering of the real wage floor, such factors have made a strongly negative impact on black workers in the past few decades. In particular, blacks are disproportionately represented in job areas that have been hit hardest, such as blue-collar occupations in the manufacturing or low-wage service industries. So not only have black workers’ wages been disproportionately affected by such changes, but black workers are also more affected by job insecurity and reduced benefits.

Four Recommendations

Bernstein and Rothstein suggest four possible policies to reduce the earnings gap.

  1. Minimum-wage increases. This would especially help black workers, since they are more frequently employed in low-wage sectors.
  2. Renewal of collective bargaining. Unionization has historically been responsible for significant wage increases, particularly for people who have had less education.
  3. Progressive taxation. While this would not affect the earnings gap per se, it would narrow the black-white after-tax income gap and further economic and social integration.
  4. Full-employment policies. Minorities’ unemployment rate in particular tends to reduce significantly in tighter labor markets.

Jencks and Phillips Respond

They admit that the sort of policies Bernstein and Rothstein suggest would help blacks more than whites, but Jencks and Phillips point out that such policies would not change the fact that blacks remain concentrated in the lower end of the job spectrum. The solution they recommend is to reduce discrimination in the job market.

The best way to do this, Jencks and Phillips claim, is to boost cognitive skills. They write:

"One reason blacks encounter so much discrimination is that most employers think blacks have weaker cognitive skills than whites with the same amount of schooling. This means that even blacks with skills comparable to whites have trouble getting good jobs, because skilled blacks have trouble convincing whites that they are really different from blacks with weaker skills." (Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips respond section, ¶ 15)

Of course, correcting this discrimination problem is not easy. The use of cognitive tests in hiring—even if such tests are intended to provide equal opportunity for blacks—can reinforce discrimination, particularly if blacks perform poorly on the tests. Such tests are also liable to the charge of being biased.

Research Design: This article consists of a series of responses from prominent experts toJencks, C.,and Phillips, M.America’s Next Achievement Test.The American Prospect,9(September-October 1998).


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