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Historical Perspectives on Racial Differences in Schooling in the United States

  • Collins, William J.
  • Margo, Robert A.

In this chapter we present an overview of the history of racial differences in schooling in the United States. We present basic data on literacy, school attendance, educational attainment, various measures of school quality, and the returns to schooling. Then, in the context of a simple model of schooling attainment, we interpret the fundamental trends in an "analytic narrative" that illuminates change over time. Although some of the data presented in the tables carry the story to the late twentieth century, the evidence and narrative we develop focus on the period before 1954, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. A theme of convergence is central to the narrative. Slaves were typically forbidden to learn how to read and write, and others were typically forbidden to teach them. Just after the Civil War, more than 80 percent of African Americans over the age of nine were illiterate (compared to 12 percent of whites). After Emancipation, black children continued to face many obstacles in acquiring education. In addition to their relative poverty and their parents' relatively low levels of literacy (on average), society and its educational institutions were overtly racist. The negative implications for black children's schooling were significant and lasted well into the twentieth century. Nonetheless, successive generations of black children did manage to narrow the racial gap in schooling and educational attainment. By 1930, only 12 percent of African Americans were illiterate - finally attaining the level that whites had registered 60 years earlier. The pace of change was not constant, however, and there were some periods of short-run divergence between blacks and whites in educational attainment. The long-term process of convergence, moreover, has yet to fully run its course, and the remaining racial gaps in schooling have proven quite stubborn to eliminate.

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This chapter was published in:
  • Erik Hanushek & F. Welch (ed.), 2006. "Handbook of the Economics of Education," Handbook of the Economics of Education, Elsevier, edition 1, volume 1, number 1, June.
  • This item is provided by Elsevier in its series Handbook of the Economics of Education with number 1-03.
    Handle: RePEc:eee:educhp:1-03
    Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.elsevierdirect.com/product.jsp?isbn=9780444513991

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    1. Stanley L. Engerman & Stephen H. Haber & Kenneth L. Sokoloff, 2000. "Inequality, institution and differential paths of growth among New World economies," Chapters, in: Institutions, Contracts and Organizations, chapter 11 Edward Elgar.
    2. Robert A. Margo, 1990. "Segregated Schools and the Mobility Hypothesis: A Model of Local Government Discrimination," NBER Historical Working Papers 0017, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. John J. Donohue III & James Heckman, 1991. "Continuous Versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks," NBER Working Papers 3894, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. David Card & Alan Krueger, 1990. "School Quality and Black/White Relative Earnings: A Direct Assessment," Working Papers 652, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
    5. Claudia Goldin, 1990. "Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number gold90-1, August.
    6. Margo, Robert A, 1984. "Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks before World War I: Comment and Further Evidence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(4), pages 768-76, September.
    7. William J.Collins & Robert A. Margo, 2000. "Race and Home Ownership: A Century-Long View," Vanderbilt University Department of Economics Working Papers 0012, Vanderbilt University Department of Economics.
    8. Smith, James P, 1986. "Race and Human Capital: Reply," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(5), pages 1225-29, December.
    9. Smith, James P & Welch, Finis R, 1989. "Black Economic Progress after Myrdal," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 27(2), pages 519-64, June.
    10. Margo, Robert A, 1986. "Race and Human Capital: Comment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(5), pages 1221-24, December.
    11. Smith, James P, 1984. "Race and Human Capital," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(4), pages 685-98, September.
    12. Margo, Robert A, 1986. "Educational Achievement in Segregated School Systems: The Effects of "Separate-but-Equal."," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(4), pages 794-801, September.
    13. Higgs, Robert, 1982. "Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks before World War I," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 72(4), pages 725-37, September.
    14. Goldin, Claudia, 1998. "America's Graduation from High School: The Evolution and Spread of Secondary Schooling in the Twentieth Century," Scholarly Articles 2664307, Harvard University Department of Economics.
    15. Pritchett, Jonathan B., 1989. "The Burden of Negro Schooling: Tax Incidence and Racial Redistribution in Postbellum North Carolina," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 49(04), pages 966-973, December.
    16. Vigdor, Jacob L., 2002. "The Pursuit of Opportunity: Explaining Selective Black Migration," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 51(3), pages 391-417, May.
    17. Robert A. Margo, 2002. "The North-South Wage Gap, Before and After the Civil War," NBER Working Papers 8778, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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