One reason for all the attention to inequality these days is that, despite many efforts to improve opportunities for disadvantaged young people, inequality in many domains has been getting worse, not better. Education is one of those domains—and as someone who keeps close tabs on our education system, this is not what I expected.
Back in the year 2001, I held an optimistic view of the future of educational inequality. Based on trends I observed throughout much of the 20th century, I predicted that inequality in education between whites and African Americans would diminish greatly over the course of the 21st century. I was not alone in this prediction. For example, in 2003, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed the view that, in 25 years, affirmative action would no longer be necessary because racial inequality would have receded. I was less sanguine about socioeconomic inequality, as 20th century trends led me to anticipate no change during the 21st century.
Thus far, unfortunately, I was more wrong than right. On most educational indicators, black–white inequality has diminished very little since the turn of the century—far less than either I or Justice O’Connor predicted. Moreover, socioeconomic inequality in education, while stable on some indicators, has actually gotten worse on others.
Why is this the case, and what can we do about it? In this essay I review recent trends, account for the failure of my optimistic predictions, and point toward new directions for researchers that may ultimately help restore the optimism that held sway at the dawn of the 21st century.
This essay originally appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.