Equality of Opportunity
Equality of Opportunity
EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY
Equality of opportunity refers to the fairness of processes through which individuals with different backgrounds or from different social groups reach particular outcomes, such as educational or occupational goals. Sociologists have developed several alternative approaches to defining and assessing equality of opportunity in each outcome domain, including trends in demographic gaps, residual differences after relevant qualifications are taken into account, process differences in the variables linking individual attributes to outcomes, and structural differences in the barriers encountered in preparing for, learning about, or obtaining particular educational or occupational achievements. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages for particular scientific, policy, and practical purposes.
TRENDS IN DEMOGRAPHIC GAPS
Equality of opportunity is usually judged with reference to major demographic groupings, such as race, sex, or socioeconomic status. When there are significant changes over an extended period of time in educational or occupational outcome gaps for major subgroups, inferences may be made that changes in opportunity structures underlie the trends. This argument is best made when confidence is high on the accuracy of the outcome trend data, the timing of changes in outcomes and specific opportunity processes can be matched, and other subgroup differential changes in personal resources can be discounted as nonexistent or following a different time sequence.
In education, changes in racial/ethnic gaps in achievement scores and college attendance rates have been subjected to trend analyses to pinpoint opportunity processes. The test score gap showing higher average achievement in basic skills by white students compared to African-American students has shown a significant narrowing since the 1970s, although the covergence may have stalled or begun to reverse on some tests by the end of the century (Jencks and Phillips 1998). Since the largest gains during this period occurred for African-American students who entered school between the late 1960s and late 1970s, particularly in the South, some have credited the antipoverty legislation and school desegregation enforcements of the time aimed at increasing educational opportunities for minorities. Trends in college entry among gender and racial/ethnic groups show interesting patterns in recent decades that invite explanations of changing opportunities for selected groups. After a long-term upward trend from the 1940s to the mid 1970s, when college entry increased more for African Americans than whites to narrow the gap in educational attainments, college entry actually declined among African-American high school graduates from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, with some signs of recovery in black initial college enrollments in the 1990s that still did not match the progress of whites during the same period. Careful analyses to match various contemporaneous changes to the college entry trends through the 1980s ruled out most changes in personal resources, such as family income and academic achievement, although modifications in college financial aid policies from grants to loans in the face of rapidly rising college costs may account for minority college entry declines (Hauser 1993).
Racial/ethnic gaps in college degree attainments, after gradually closing for successive decades, still remain very large and recently also have begun to grow even larger. The number of African-American recipients of either bachelor or advanced degrees has actually declined since the beginning of the 1980s, which can be tied to numerous inequalities of access and support in the American education system across the grades and the court-inspired decline of racial considerations in the admissions policies of some colleges (Miller 1995; Orfield and Miller 1998).
Economic changes over recent decades in the distribution of income have also been subjected to trend analyses. Income inequality as measured by the gaps in the percentage of annual income held by different social groups, such as the top fifth versus bottom fifth of the population, showed moderate improvements, with only small periods of slight reversals over the years following World War II through the end of the 1970s. But the period since 1980 has been one in which income inequality increased sharply, sometimes called the shrinking middle class, as the rich got richer, acquiring a higher percent of total income, while productivity growth eliminated jobs or decreased earnings for many less educated workers (Levy, 1995). Numerous factors have been associated with recent trends, including reduced access to employment opportunities due to the movement of jobs from many urban locations where poor minority workers live (Wilson 1996).
RESIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY
Even when major outcome gaps are observed, the issue remains whether individuals from major population subgroups have had the same chances to achieve educational or occupational success, assuming that they possess the same distributions of personal attributes to qualify for success. Because any initial average outcome gaps between subgroups can be due to unequal possession of relevant qualifications, as well as to unfair access to the opportunities that link qualifications to achievements, it is necessary to take into account differences in personal qualifications before deciding that unequal opportunities exist.
Researchers have frequently tested for inequalities of opportunity by estimating the residual gap between the educational or occupational success of selected race, sex, or social-class groups after individual differences in relevant credentials or competencies and educational or labor market locations have been statistically controlled for. The usual methodology is to estimate a prediction equation or to use other methods of standardization for selected individual resource variables that permit a researcher to compare the actual group difference in an educational or occupational outcome with the residual gap that would be expected if one group's productivity resources were replaced by the average resources of the other group (Farley and Allen 1987, Chap. 11). For example, the actual average difference in annual earnings of African-American and white workers in the North would be compared against the residual earnings gap when one assumes that African-American workers' resources (such as education and labor-market experience) deliver the same rate of return in earnings as that experienced by white workers. Some problems are inherent in this approach, including the risk of overestimating the residual gap if some important qualification variables are omitted or poorly measured and the chance of underestimating the residual gap when some groups are deprived of relevant qualifications due to earlier unequal opportunities not reflected in the estimation methodology. Nevertheless, several important residual race, sex, or social-class gaps have been identified for various important educational and occupational outcomes. However, these gaps are often associated with some subgroups but not others, and some gaps have been changing more rapidly than others in recent years.
Numerous national and regional studies have been conducted since the 1960s to estimate the inequality of job opportunities, including research that examines residual subgroup differences in unemployment rates, occupational distributions, and dollar returns from holding a job. Studies of race, sex, and social-class residual gaps in earnings and income of employed workers have been particularly noteworthy, with more than twenty-five major national studies having been published since 1965 (Farley and Allen 1987).
The research on earnings gaps that estimates the "cost of being black" due to inequality of job opportunities has contrasted the experiences of male and female workers and reported the continuing but declining significance of race. After taking into account differences in educational attainment, age or years of potential labor-market experience, hours of work, and regional location, large residual gaps in earnings are found between male African-American and white workers, with African Americans earning 10 to 20 percent less than comparable whites in various regions and at various educational levels. Women continue to earn much less than men of the same race with similar educational credentials, but the residual race gap for women is no longer the same as reported for men. In 1960, African-American women earned less than white women at all educational levels except college graduate, but this gap had been eliminated or reversed by 1980, when college-educated African-American women actually reported greater earnings, largely because of greater hours of employment. The residual race gap in earnings for employed workers also appeared to grow somewhat smaller, for men between 1960 and the 1990s, but it still remains between 10 and 15 percent at all educational levels.
At the same time, evidence is mounting that racial gaps in rates of unemployment are significant and have been growing worse since the 1960s for African-American men in most age and education categories; they are especially severe for unmarried young African-American men in the North who have limited educational attainments (Farley and Allen 1987, chaps. 8–11; Jaynes and Williams 1989, Chap. 6). While the economic boom period in the 1990s benefited the average employment prospects and median incomes of all race/ethnic and gender groups, the lower levels of the income distribution and the poorly educated did not keep pace and actually fell behind in some of these years.
Race inequalities of accumulated wealth have also been investigated after statistically taking into account factors that affect how individuals encounter financial opportunity structures. Measured by either the net worth of a household total assets less any debts or as net financial assets that exclude equity accrued in a home or vehicle that is more difficult to convert into other resources, very large racial differences are found in wealth that have grown even larger in recent years. The average black family held $3,779 in mean net worth in 1967, which rose to $19,736 in 1984 and $23,818 in 1988, in comparison to the average white family's mean net worth, which stood at $20,153, $76,267, and $95,667 for the same time periods, for a race gap that widened by $40,000 during these years and reached $71,849 by 1988. After controlling for differences in age, annual household income, household composition, and professional and self-employed status, nearly three-quarters of the racial gap is left unexplained. Institutional and policy factors that may account for the residual race differentials in wealth include mortgage loan and interest rate practices, evaluation of different neighborhoods, and various inheritance mechanisms whereby status and resources can be transmitted across generations (Oliver and Shapiro 1995).
Inequalities of educational opportunity have been examined by estimating residual race, sex, or social-class gaps in outcomes net of initial resources, especially for college enrollment and completion rates. Among the earliest evidence of a social-class gap in college attendance net of academic ability is data from the 1960s showing that even after controlling on standardized test performance, students from lower categories of socioeconomic status are much less likely to enter college within five years of high school graduation. The talent loss due to unequal social-class background was estimated to be 50 percent of top-ability students who do not enter college from the lowest socioeconomic quartile, compared with a loss of only 5 percent of high-ability students from the highest socioeconomic quartile (U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare 1969). The importance of social-class factors for educational equity was reinforced by extensive research on Wisconsin high school students that included measures of race as well as student achievement on standardized tests. Social-class disparities in educational attainment net of academic ability were again in evidence, as it was reported that topability students were only half as likely to attend college or to graduate from college if they came from the lowest quarter, rather than the highest quarter, in socioeconomic status (Sewell and Hauser 1980). These studies also estimated that observed African-American–white differences in years of educational attainment can largely be accounted for by social-class differences between the racial groups.
However, race differences in students' achievement test performance are not so well explained by socioeconomic status alone. A study of seven national probability samples of adolescents from 1965 to 1996 described trends in black–white test score gaps after adjustments had been made for social class, family structure, and community variables. About a third of the test score gap is accounted for by racial differences in social class, so a major race gap remains in adjusted test scores; this gap has narrowed somewhat since 1965, although the rate of closure seems to have decreased or reversed since 1972. Group differences at the extremes of the distribution reveal contrasting gaps and the importance of social-class factors. Social-class–adjusted differences at the bottom of the distribution are closing more rapidly, especially in reading, but differences at the top of the achievement distribution are large and they are neither improving over time nor due to relative changes in social class (Hedges and Nowell 1999). This supports that argument that gaps in test scores are due to factors other than social class and family structure, such as discrimination, residential segregation, and the quality of schooling available to African Americans (Jaynes and Williams 1989).
PROCESS DIFFERENCES IN OPPORTUNITIES
Another approach to assessing equality of opportunity is to compare the attainment processes that link personal resources or investments to educational or occupational achievements for different social groups. Opportunities can be defined as unequal when the major avenues to advancement used by one group are not as effective for another. Researchers have frequently reported attainment process differences in the degree to which various population subgroups have been able to capitalize on advantages of family background or have experienced a high rate of return on investments in building relevant competencies or credentials. Some of this work has been criticized for possible shortcomings of methodology and interpretation.
Studies of social-group differences in an attainment process are important because they help to estimate the long-run prospects for closing existing achievement gaps (Featherman and Hauser 1978, Chap. 6). The prospects are positive if each subgroup has access to an attainment process that will translate improvements of personal and family resources into achievement outcomes, especially when programs and policies are available for investments in upgrading resources of groups that at present are weak. But if some groups are lagging in relevant skills and credentials, and are exposed only to attainment processes that provide poor returns in comparison with other groups, then the prospects are dim for closing existing gaps.
Studies of general social mobility processes have identified the special problems of African American males in translating any advantages from the family of origin into attainments in their own adult lives. For the white male population in this country, clear intergenerational processes have been evidenced in which sons can build upon a middle- or upper-class family background, as shown by the strong relationship between father's and son's occupational status for whites over many recent decades. In contrast, through the 1960s, African-American males have not been as able to capitalize on any family advantages in building their occupational careers, as shown by the weak relationship for intergenerational mobility and the frequency with which substantial proportions of African-American males from nonmanual or white-collar households are downwardly mobile and unable to benefit from their family advantages. There is some indication that since the 1970s race differences for males in the opportunities to benefit from any inheritance of family social-class advantages have closed (Farley and Allen 1987; Featherman and Hauser 1978.)
Race differences in the processes of school effects on achievement have been reported in two national studies by the sociologist James S. Coleman and his research coworkers. In a 1966 national study of public schools, differences in school resources and learning environments were found to have larger average effects on African-American students' achievement than on white students' achievement (Coleman et al. 1966). The result was interpreted as a differential sensitivity of disadvantaged students to school improvements, because these students from poor families relied more on good schools for their development of academic skills. A similar race difference in educational processes was found in the 1980s with national data from public and private high schools (Coleman and Hoffer 1987). African Americans, Latinos, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were found to do better in Catholic schools than in public high schools, in terms of both higher test scores and lower dropout rates. It was argued that these students especially benefited from the greater academic demands that can be enforced by the sense of community established by Catholic schools, which compensates for family disadvantages of many of these students. Again, minority and disadvantaged students were found to be more responsive to changes in school environments that have effects on high school students' achievement and completion rates. Other researchers have questioned the recent results on the grounds that key student/family self-selection variables were not controlled in the analyses of public–Catholic school differences and that the sizes of the race interaction effects were not impressive by conventional statistical standards (Alexander and Pallas 1985; McPartland and McDill 1982).
Research has indicated that race inequalities are currently much less evident in educational attainment processes than in occupational attainment processes. Analyses using appropriate statistical tests of the processes that yield important educational achievements—such as additional years of schooling and scholastic outcomes, including grades and test scores—have found great similarities between African Americans and whites (Gottfredson 1981; Wolfle 1985). Thus, not only have African-American–white differences in the frequency of high school graduation and college education been diminishing, the processes that link social background and school input variations to educational achievements have become very similar for African Americans and whites. At the same time, race gaps in school test scores have been closing more slowly, and serious disparities persist in the level of financing and concentration of single-race and disadvantaged student bodies in schools attended by racial minorities, even though education attainment processes would translate improvements of such inputs into attainments for African Americans (Jaynes and Williams 1989).
However, major race and sex differences continue in the occupational domain regarding both the processes of attainment and the gaps in achievement. Labor-market disparities by race and sex are much more apparent than differences in educational opportunities, but the disparities are exhibited in complex patterns or processes according to individuals' social-class position, labor-market location, career stage, and other factors (Farley and Allen 1987; Featherman and Hauser 1978; Jaynes and Williams 1989; Wilson 1987). The chances are equally good for African Americans and whites of each sex who are highly educated to gain entry to good jobs, but advancement opportunities to higher positions at later career stages are more likely to be missed by African Americans. At the same time, African-American male workers with less advanced credentials are much more likely to have periods of unemployment or reduced hours, and to be paid less when employed, than white males with equivalent years of schooling. The greatest race discrepancies are observed for poorly educated young African-American males, who are much more likely than comparable whites to be unemployed, to have dropped out of the labor force, or to report no annual earnings. William J. Wilson (1980) has developed a theory of the "declining significance of race" that considers the growing social-class gaps within the African-American population in occupational success, as well as the special difficulties faced by poorly educated African-American males in urban racial ghettos, whom he views as "the truly disadvantaged" (Wilson 1987).
STRUCTURAL BARRIERS TO EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
While careful studies of residual differences and attainment process differences can document the existence of unequal opportunities, other research is required on specific interactions and practices in schools or labor markets to understand the actual barriers that unfairly inhibit individuals because of their sex, race, or social-class position. For education, research on differential access to specific components of schooling, studies of tracking and grouping policies in elementary and secondary schools, and examinations of financial aid practices in higher education have identified some specific structural barriers in educational opportunities.
A landmark study was conducted in response to a congressional request under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and published in 1966 with the title Equality of Educational Opportunity. Also known as the "Coleman Report," after the sociologist James S. Coleman who directed the research, it was both influential and controversial for the way it examined educational opportunities and for its major findings (Coleman et al. 1966). Based on a large national survey of students and schools at both elementary and secondary levels, the Coleman Report collected the most comprehensive data available at that time on equity issues in education. It was not satisfied to compare only the average school input resources experienced by different race and ethnic groups—such as textbooks, libraries and laboratories, per pupil expenditures, teacher qualifications, or class size. The Coleman Report also considered race and ethnic differences on student outcomes as measured by standardized tests in major subjects, and asked how different school components contributed to student learning, in order to weigh inequalities of school inputs by their importance for student outcomes. The simultaneous examination of school inputs, student outcomes, and their relationships to one another had not been attempted before in assessing equity issues, and the published results have been a continuing source of reanalysis and reinterpretation.
The Coleman Report did find large differences in test scores between white and most racial and ethnic minority groups that existed from the time students began school and were not reduced, on the average, as students moved from grade 1 to grade 12. These differences in student outcomes could not be explained by variations in the school input factors measured by the Coleman Report surveys, because within each region no great disparities of school inputs appeared for different racial and ethnic groups, and these factors did not relate strongly to student outcomes in any case after family background and social-class factors were statistically controlled. In fact, when school factors were combined into three clusters for analysis—(1) instructional materials and resources, (2) teacher and staff characteristics, and (3) student body composition—the most important component in accounting for variations in student test scores net of family background was the attributes of fellow students. Thus, the large observed group differences in student outcomes were not found to be accounted for by existing variations in conventional school and teacher components, although attending a school with fellow students who were college-bound did seem to make a positive contribution to the learning environment.
Subsequent investigations have shown that improvements in school factors, such as smaller class size, better-qualified teachers, and well-directed extra resources, can actually make a significant difference for student learning (Burtless 1996; Jencks and Phillips 1998). But the general picture drawn by the Coleman Report has been confirmed of an educational system that does little to reduce the large racial and ethnic differences in academic test scores with which students begin elementary grades (Jencks et al. 1972; Puma et al. 1997).
The Coleman Report data did not measure within-school differences in educational resources and learning environments, and consequently was unable to analyze major barriers to equal opportunities from specific internal school practices, such as tracking and ability grouping. Other research has shown that when students are tracked into separate programs or separate courses according to their earlier test scores or grades, those in the lower-level groups are likely to encounter serious barriers to their educational growth and progress. Lower tracks and lower-level courses have been shown to offer weaker educational resources, such as fewer expert teachers and poorer educational climates with lower academic expectations, that can lead to lower average student achievement test scores and decreased probabilities of completing high school and continuing education in college (Gamoran 1986; Hallinan 1988; Oakes 1985). Tracking is now seen as a major barrier to equal educational opportunities because tracking and ability grouping are very common practices in American schools, and minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are much more likely to be assigned to the lower-level programs and courses within their schools (Oakes 1985).
Moreover, the educational resources available at the school level are thought to be more unequal for minorities and disadvantaged students at the present time than they were found to be in the 1966 Coleman Report assessments (Smith and O'Day 1991). Since the 1960s, demographic trends have created greater concentrations of poverty in large urban schools, and changes in funding support for public education in central city districts have reduced those districts' relative ability to purchase adequate classroom supplies and materials, and to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. In addition, trends in school desegregation, which produced increasing numbers of racially mixed schools with improved learning environments for minorities because of court decisions from 1954 through the 1970s, were reversed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when school segregation grew in most regions and in the nation as a whole (Orfield and Eaton, 1996). Consequently, school-level barriers to equal educational opportunities have worsened since the 1960s, because the changing urban demographics and negative fiscal trends have dramatically altered the student body composition and the quality of the teaching staff that the Coleman Report found to be the most important factors of a good school.
Barriers have been identified in college educational opportunities, which also may have gotten worse, especially for African-American males, in recent years. Minorities have long been underrepresented as students at four-year colleges, in scientific major fields, and in obtaining advanced degrees (Trent and Braddock 1987). Some of these gaps had been closing through the 1970s, but since that time, uniform progress is no longer evident and some actual downturns in minority enrollments and attainments have been recorded (Jaynes and Williams 1989; Miller 1995; Wirt et al. 1998)African-American and Latino students often encounter special problems in pursuing college programs because of insufficient social and academic support on campus or inadequate prior educational experiences (Green 1989). Recent reversals in minority enrollments have been explained by increasing tensions related to race and ethnicity on some college campuses and to changes from grants to loans in many financial assistance programs which poor students are less likely to receive or use (Blackwell 1990).
STRUCTURAL BARRIERS TO OCCUPATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
To help account for residual sex or race gaps in job success and in the career attainment process, research has identified specific structural barriers to sex equality and to racial equality in occupational opportunities.
Studies of the large average earnings differences between men and women workers show that very large gaps remain after statistically controlling on individual differences in input variables such as education and experience, but these gaps are substantially reduced by adding measures of each person's occupation or occupational group. This result indicates that sex gaps in earnings have much of their source in the extreme job segregation by sex in the American labor market—many occupations are primarily filled by women or primarily filled by men—and the wage levels are much lower for "female" occupations (Treiman and Hartmann 1981). Since fully two-thirds of men and women would have to change jobs to achieve similar representation of each sex across occupations, full enforcement of antidiscrimination laws against unequal pay for men and women in the same occupation can achieve only modest improvements in wage differentials by sex. Other suggested approaches to reducing sex segregation of jobs and associated wage gaps—such as enriching the socialization experiences toward a wider range of career exposures for children and youth of both sexes, or incorporating policies of "comparable worth" that establish wage rates by job features, irrespective of sex or race of incumbents (Hartmann 1985; Marini 1989)—have not yet made large inroads.
To specify how occupational opportunities continue to be unequal for racial or ethnic minorities, research has identified structural barriers at each stage of the occupational career process. Barriers can appear at the job candidate stage, when employers are recruiting the pool of candidates for job openings; at the job entry stage, when an individual is actually selected to fill a vacancy; and at the job promotion stage, when transfers are made within a firm to fill spots at higher levels (Braddock and McPartland 1987; Feagin and Feagin 1978; Marini 1989).
At the job candidate stage, qualified minorities of either sex may fail to learn about many desirable job openings because they are excluded from useful social networks that provide others with information about and contacts for particular employment opportunities. Employers find job candidates more frequently from walk-ins and friends of current employees (the result of informal social networks) than any other recruitment means for lower- and middle-level jobs. The social contacts used by many minorities are racially segregated networks that on the average are not as well tied to good job information as the social networks available to whites. This barrier to equal opportunities at the job candidate stage is partially kept in place by the continued racial segregation of the schools and neighborhoods that create many social networks and by the underrepresentation of minorities in the upper levels of firms, where informal information for friends and relatives about job openings is often best acquired (Crain 1970; Rossi et al. 1974).
At the job entry stage, otherwise qualified minorities are often not selected because of barriers of statistical discrimination and information bias. Employers who do not wish to invest much to obtain extensive information about job applicants will often use a group identifier, such as sex or race, in hiring decisions when they believe that traits on which subgroups may differ statistically predict job performance. For example, such "statistical discrimination" can occur when an employer selects a white over a minority applicant for a job requiring good academic skills, based on a belief in average racial group differences on academic test scores rather than on actual individual candidates' differences in academic skills shown on tests administered or obtained by the employer during the screening process (Bielby and Baron 1986; Braddock et al. 1986; Thurow 1975).
Even when qualification data from individuals are relied upon in hiring decisions, other barriers to equal opportunities occur due to "information bias" of data on minority candidates. References and recommendations from school or employment officials for African-American applicants may be viewed as less credible by white employers who are less familiar with an African-American school, a member of the African-American clergy, or an African-American firm, or who may be more wary of information provided by minority sponsors due to stigmas or stereotypes attached to these sources. Similarly, minority job applicants who grow up in communities that have high youth unemployment rates will be less able to satisfy prospective employers' interests in previous employment experiences and references (Braddock and McPartland 1987).
At the job promotion stage, minorities may face unfair barriers due to internal recruitment methods or because they are poorly positioned within internal labor markets. However, findings from a national study indicate the potential benefits to minorities of seeking internal promotions: The average pay differential between African-American and white workers is less for jobs filled from inside a firm than for jobs filled from outside for individuals of the same sex and education level, suggesting that unfair selection is reduced when employers process information on applicants' actual job performance within their firm. On the other hand, the same study showed that unless an internal vacancy is widely advertised within a firm, whites are more likely to be sought out for available promotions (Braddock and McPartland 1987). Moreover, research has shown that minorities are less likely to have entered a firm on a career ladder that ordinarily leads to promotion opportunities, so they may never be eligible to compete for advancement through an internal labor market (Rosenfield 1980).
POLICIES AND PRACTICES
Governments and courts have established policies and practices in recent decades that are intended to eliminate race and sex discrimination and to ensure equality of opportunity. These range from the 1954 Supreme Court decision against segregated schools to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the executive orders to establish affirmative action guidelines in employment (Burstein 1985; Jaynes and Williams 1989). However, in the final decades of the twentieth century, major court decisions have stepped back from considerations of race in school attendance patterns, college admissions policies, and employment selection practices (Orfield and Eaton 1996; Orfield and Miller 1998). At the same time, the expectation of high performance in elementary and secondary schools by students regardless of race or ethnicity has become widespread national and state policy, as a common-core academic curriculum is being mandated for all learners. It has yet to be determined how testing of students will combine with higher standards to influence access to educational opportunities and the gaps in dropout rates and achievement scores.
Although it is difficult to distinguish the effects of one governmental action from those of another in improving the life chances of women and minorities, clear advances have been made that can be attributed to the combined impacts of various public policies for equal rights. For example, from 1970 to 1990 the race gaps in academic test scores of schoolchildren decreased between 25 and 50 percent for different age groups (Smith and O'Day 1991). Reductions in the race gaps in terms of years of school completed have been dramatic, especially among female students. Greater equity is also evident in some labor-market behaviors, including the distribution of occupations by race within sex groups. On the other hand, inequalities in the distribution of income have grown in recent years, with a much higher share going to the top earners; average racial improvements are not evident in employment rates and income levels of adult males; some stagnation or reversals have occurred in upward trends of minority test scores and college attainment rates; and extensive racial segregation of housing and schooling remains a dominant feature of American life. The increasing diversity of minority groups in this country will amplify issues of equality of opportunity that concern language and cultural background differences in the population (Harrison and Bennett 1995).
Controversy continues to accompany further efforts to sustain current policies and to institute new practices for equal opportunities. The differences are most evident on whether outcome-based policies are required to overcome systemic barriers—for instance, affirmative action programs that use guidelines and timetables—or whether efforts should concentrate only on intentional discrimination or on specific aspects of the processes that inhibit equal rights (Levinger 1987).
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