The American Public Thinks Very Differently about Wealth- and Race-based Educational Inequality
The American Public Thinks Very Differently about Wealth- and Race-based Educational Inequality

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235 (office), (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Victoria Oms,
(202) 238-3233 (office)

The American Public Thinks Very Differently about Wealth- and Race-based Educational Inequality

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 11—When asked about wealth- and race/ethnicity-based academic achievement gaps, Americans are more concerned about the gap between poor and wealthy students, more supportive of policies that might close it, and more prepared to explain the reasons behind it, according to new research published online today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Drawing on nationally representative survey data, the study authors—Jon Valant of Tulane University and Daniel Newark of the University of Southern Denmark—found that 63.7 percent of American adults say that it is “essential” or “a high priority” to close the poor-wealthy gap in student test scores. Only 35.6 percent and 31 percent say the same thing about the black-white gap and Hispanic-white gap, respectively.

For their study, Valant and Newark used data from a national survey conducted by YouGov, an internet-based research firm specializing in academic survey research and online political polling. One thousand members of YouGov’s online respondent panel were randomly assigned to one of three groups to answer questions about the poor-wealthy test score gap, the black-white gap, or the Hispanic-white gap. The study authors then compared answers to these questions across the three gap groups.

Respondents were also asked about their support for three specific gap-closing proposals—teacher bonuses, school vouchers, and summer school programs. Fifty-two percent supported the teacher bonus proposal to close the poor-wealthy gap, compared to 31 percent for addressing the black-white gap and 27 percent for the Hispanic-white gap. The voucher and summer school proposals also received more support when directed at the poor-wealthy gap.

When asked about four possible underlying causes for test score gaps—discrimination and injustice, student motivation, parenting, and genetic differences—almost half of respondents said that none of the test score gaps between blacks and whites (44 percent) and Hispanics and whites (44 percent) were due to discrimination and injustice. Only 10 percent attributed a great deal of the black-white gap, and 9 percent a great deal of the Hispanic-white gap to those causes.

In comparison, respondents were much more likely to attribute the wealth-based gap across all four explanations, with responses more evenly split. For all three gaps, there was a tendency to attribute test score differences most commonly to parenting, followed by student motivation, discrimination and injustice, and then genetic differences.

“We were surprised that so many Americans believe race- and ethnicity-based gaps are minimally, or in no way, a result of the nation’s legacy of racial discrimination and injustice,” said the authors.

Valant and Newark found that an increase in how much respondents attributed a test score gap to discrimination or injustice was associated with higher ratings of the importance of closing that gap, even when controlling for respondents’ demographic and political characteristics. However, it is unclear whether one causes the other.

The authors stated that further research would be needed to examine whether support for equity-focused education policies increases if more people are persuaded that discrimination and injustice play prominent roles in creating these gaps.

Valant and Newark noted that the results indicate that there might be greater political will for policies targeting poor-wealthy gaps than black-white or Hispanic-white gaps.

However, while it is possible that race-neutral initiatives that disproportionately benefit minority children are more politically viable than initiatives that overtly favor racial or ethnic minorities, the authors added that such an approach “neglects that race- and wealth-based gaps have different origins, patterns, and implications, with poverty and racial discrimination presenting distinct challenges.” Moreover, they pointed out that there are “important considerations besides political feasibility in deciding how the discussion of educational inequality should be approached.”

To read the full study, click HERE. To speak with study author Jon Valant, please contact Tony Pals at or Victoria Oms at

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.


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