Educational Attainment Disparities Between American Racial and Ethnic Groups within the U.S.

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In the United States, public expenditures on primary and secondary public education exceed $700 billion annually — that amounts nearly $14,000 per public school student.[1] Internationally, this puts the U.S. among the top-spending countries on education both in absolute dollars and as a percentage of GDP.[2] However, within the United States, educational outcome disparities exist among various racial and ethnic groups on metrics such as standardized testing scores, high school graduation rates, and behavioral indicators such as disciplinary actions, suspension and expulsion from schools.[3] While some suggest that these disparities are the product of unequal allocation of resources, many studies, data, and evidence strongly suggest that a significant factor in disparate educational outcomes may be the various cultural values generally held and practiced within different racial and ethnic groups, particularly as they relate to marriage and divorce rates, parental involvement in education, and high value placed on education and work ethic.

Family Stability: Marriage, Divorce Rates, and Teen Pregnancy

In general, a vast body of research finds that instability within the family structure adversely affects children's well-being and educational attainment.[4] Parental divorce, in particular, has been shown to negatively affect educational outcomes of children.[5] Children whose parents divorce are less likely to complete high school and attend and complete college. One of the primary reasons for this is that divorce is strongly associated with decreased family income, which in turn, has been demonstrated to play a major role in children's education due to parents’ decreased ability to invest in their children, or afford to live in neighborhoods with better schools.[5][6]

Marriage Patterns Among Racial and Ethnic Groups

Marriage patterns and rates of divorce vary wildly among racial and ethnic groups within the United States. For example, in 2014, 82 percent of Asian American children, 70 percent of white children, and about 59 percent of Hispanic children were living with both of their biological parents, while this was true for just over one in three of black children.[6][7] Data shows both the lowest rates of marriage and highest rates of divorce among black women — nearly double that of white and hispanic, and three times that of Asian American women — a relatively new historical trend among blacks that began during the 1960s.[6][8] In contrast, Asian Americans demonstrate both the highest rates of marriage and the lowest rates of divorce.[7] According to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, Asian American cultures generally place great value on marriage and traditional family values, which are rooted in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.[7]

Black disparities in marriage appear at all levels of education, suggesting that something more than class status is at play.[6] Some research strongly suggests that childhood family structure is a major contributor to black divorce rate — black children being more likely to experience divorce and/or to be born to single mothers, they are less likely than other races to have been exposed to positive marital models as children.[9] Children from single parent households also enter adulthood with less conventional attitudes about marriage and family life.[9]

Further contributing to the intergenerational nature of family (in)stability and education attainment, class status has become increasingly associated with marriage patterns. Among black women, and more recently among white women, lower levels of education have become associated with higher levels of divorce and declines in marriage.

Teen Pregnancy

Single-parent families are also associated with higher rates of teen pregnancy.[6] Teen pregnancy is extremely disruptive to educational attainment. 30 percent of teenage girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy and parenthood as key reasons. The rate of black and hispanic teens who dropout due to pregnancy is higher, at 36 and 38 percent, respectively. Fewer than 40 percent of teen mothers finish high school, and fewer than 2 percent finish college by age 30. Further, teen pregnancy has a negative effect on the lifetime income of the mothers, with two-thirds of them being considered poor, and one-fourth becoming dependent on welfare within three years of the child’s birth. Many children do not escape this cycle of poverty, with two-thirds of children born to teen mothers earning a high school diploma, compared to 81 percent of their peers with older parents.[10] According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Hispanics and Blacks doubled whites in teen pregnancy rates in 2017, and topped Asian Americans by nine-fold.[11]

Birth rates for females aged 15-19, by race and Hispanic origin of mother: United States, 2016 and 2017

Comparative Analysis: Parental Engagement in and Emphasis on Education Across Cultures & Ethnicities

Parental engagement is defined by parents and teachers sharing in the responsibility to assist in children's learning and meeting their educational goals.[12] The extent of parental involvement and encouragement of learning at home is the most accurate predictor of academic achievement in children, even in comparison to socioeconomic status or school prestige.[12] Parental engagement fosters a lifelong love of learning.[12]

Asian Americans

There is voluminous evidence to suggest that Asian Americans generally demonstrate the highest degree of parental engagement in their children's education. This is enabled, in part, by Asian Americans’ cultural commitment to traditional family values and marital stability, described above, as well as other cultural norms and values, described below.

To illustrate the success of Asian Americans in academics, one might look at California’s most selective campuses. While Asian Americans constitute roughly 15 percent of the states’ population, they constituted 43, 40 and 37 percent of the freshman classes at California Institute of Technology, UCLA,  and UC Berkeley in 2010-2013, respectively.[13][14] At the elementary school level, Asian American students lead other racial and ethnic groups in fourth, eighth, and high school senior level reading.[13] Although some researchers suggest US immigration policy is selective and disproportionately admits more highly educated and relatively wealthy Asians, others argue that these facts do not fully explain the success of Asian American students in the US.

Kathy Seal notes sociological studies examining the cultural beliefs that affect Asian-American parenting and their outcomes on children's learning. These studies note a style of parenting that results in Asian American children spending more time studying than other children.[13] One study found that Asian-American 11th-graders studied six hours more per week than their white peers, attributing this to “a cultural heritage that emphasizes education.”[15] Another found that in 2007, more than two-thirds of Asian-American high school students did homework five or more days a week, while only about 40 percent of white and Hispanic kids, and less than a third of African-American students, did so.[16] Another study showed that Asian-American children devote less time to chores, part-time jobs and dating than others.[13]

According to researchers Ruth Chao and Jin Li, the Confucian idea of “self-perfection” — achieving the virtues of diligence, preservation and concentration  — is greatly responsible for this cultural value and emphasis on education.[13] In 2011, Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, penned the popular and somewhat controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which both illustrated and popularized the strict standards and expectations Asian American “tiger mothers” have for their children in academics, socialization, and extracurricular activities. Statistics seem to support these notions of Asian parenting. The average Asian high school student spends 13 hours a week studying and doing homework compared to a white counterpart who spends about 5.5 hours, according to a 2011 report by Valerie Ramey, an economics professor at UC San Diego. Ramey also found that Asians spend less time on sports and socializing than any other ethnic group.[13][17]

Comparing Asian American parents and students to their native Asian counterparts seems to confirm that cultural values play a primary role in Asian American academic success relative to other races and ethnicities in the U.S. Critics have noted that while the U.S. spends more than any other country on public education, it ranks internationally in the middle, particularly in math and science, especially compared to Asian countries — even though the curriculum is identical except for the language.[18]

Again, culture seems to be the differentiating factor. Throughout most of Asia, education is seen as the sole path to success, and parental expectations, a sense of competition and pride are behind Asia’s academic success. Asians are spending not only more time and energy on their children's education, but more money. Some Asian families are taking “extreme” spending measures like going deep into debt, foregoing healthcare, and selling their homes to finance their children and grandchildren's education.[19]

American Students, Generally

In contrast, American school teachers and principals are urging parents to become more involved, even with simply helping their children with their homework, lamenting that American parents cite a variety of excuses for their limited involvement, such as being busy with work, personal issues, or their own limited education.[18]

Hispanic Americans

Hispanics are among the least educated groups in the United States; only 11 percent of those over 25 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, and more than 25 percent of Hispanic adults have less than a ninth-grade education.[20] Consequently, particularly when parents’ primary language is Spanish, Hispanic children ages 3 to 5 are 50 percent less likely to be read to when compared to non-Hispanic children.  If both parents speak English, Hispanic parents remain 15 percent less likely to read to their children three or more times per week.[20] Reading to children and other parental activities have been shown to enhance children’s language acquisition, early reading performance, social development, and later success in school.

Hispanic children entering kindergarten come disproportionately from families with one or more risk factors, such as: having a mother who did not complete high school; living in a single-parent home; living in a low-income or welfare-dependent household; or having a parent who speaks a language other than English in the home. One or more of these risk factors present in a child’s life make it more likely the child will have difficulty in school.[20]

Hispanic parents rely heavily on afterschool programs to supervise and provide mentorship to their children during after-school hours.[21] Hispanic children's participation in afterschool programs grew from 15 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2014 —nearly doubling. This percentage is 11 points higher than children overall, and more than double that of Caucasian children, who represent 12 percent of enrollees. These afterschool programs are in high, unmet demand among Hispanic families. In 2014, 57 percent of Hispanic children not enrolled in an afterschool program would have been if one were available, and 70 percent of Hispanic children show some measure of met or unmet demand for afterschool programs.[21]

Other cultural norms may influence Hispanic parent and student success in American classrooms. According to an online resource for non-Hispanic educators, cooperative learning is strongly suggested for teaching Hispanic students. This is because Hispanic families and culture discourage openly exhibiting knowledge or excelling over siblings or peers, as this is perceived as bad manners or embarrassing to those with less knowledge or ability.[22]

African Americans

Black children entering kindergarten come disproportionately from families with one or more risk factors that have negative effects on, including: having a mother who did not complete high school; living in a single-parent home; or living in a low-income or welfare-dependent household. One or more of these risk factors present in a child’s life make it more likely the child will have difficulty in school.[20]

Black children entering kindergarten come disproportionately from families with one or more risk factors that have negative effects on, including: having a mother who did not complete high school; living in a single-parent home; or living in a low-income or welfare-dependent household. One or more of these risk factors present in a child’s life make it more likely the child will have difficulty in school.

In the book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, University of California Berkeley linguistics professor John McWhorter notes that African American students on average are the weakest performers at all ages, in all subjects and regardless of class level.

McWhorter examines what he sees as three self-imposed cultural currents that have been deeply embraced within black identity and the African American community which make black America “a case apart” in the United States and contribute to lower levels of educational and socioeconomic attainment: the Cult of Victimology; Separatism; and Anti-Intellectualism.

McWhorter argues that through social policies such as open-ended welfare and affirmative action, whites in America unwittingly condone and encourage these three cultural currents due to a sense of moral obligation, seeing them as understandable responses to blacks’ historical past in the United States.

On Victimology, McWhorter suggests that the subconscious embrace of victimhood within the black community excuses and glorifies “gangsta” culture criminality as something of a rebellious fight against a formerly oppressive system. This cultural glorification of criminality has led black men to commit violent crime and be incarcerated in drastic disproportion to their population. This, in turn, disrupts educational, socioeconomic attainment, as well as impacting prospects of family stability and breaking cycles of poverty or achieving upward social mobility for future generations.


There is strong evidence to suggest that cultural factors play a major role in shaping the educational outcomes among various racial and ethnic groups within the United States. Although historical and economic factors contribute to these disparities, they do not fully explain the drastic variety of outcomes between races, and the consistency of outcomes within races, particularly as it relates to family unit stability and parental engagement childrens’ in education.


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