Gaining New Perspectives on the Achievement GAP

Gaining New Perspectives on the  Achievement GAP

Scholars examining the academic achievement gap between Black and White students in grades K-12 worry that its persistence will result in continued social and economic inequality between Blacks and Whites in the United States.
The concern is valid, given the widespread consensus among scholars and policymakers that solutions must be found to improve the achievement of Black and Latino children, especially those living in impoverished communities.
Despite willingness to support taxpayer-financed vouchers for children to attend private schools — a controversial policy proposal thought to spell disaster for public schools — the incoming conservative Bush administration has placed reform of poorly performing schools high on its agenda.
“[President George W. Bush] has made it clear that he sees the urgency involved in making our classrooms safer, in equipping each child with reading and math skills, and in closing the inexcusable achievement gap that exists among students attending public schools across this country, particularly among minority students and economically disadvantaged students,” said U.S. Education
Secretary Dr. Roderick R. Paige at his swearing-in ceremony.
Nevertheless, three decades of investigation and experimentation have produced a vast array of innovative schools, curricula, theories and policy proposals that, taken together, has yet to close the achievement gap on a national scale. What seemed to be promising progress by Black and Latino students on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized tests from the early 1970s to the late 1980s stagnated and declined during the 1990s.
At the dawn of a new century, scholars and policymakers remain optimistic that solutions for closing the achievement gap do exist. Legions of education experts have devoted their careers to closing the gap, and promising examples of schools, teaching practices and innovative curricula are in place around the country.
“We are collecting more and more evidence from schools across this nation that poverty and race do not have to be impediments to high achievement. [High quality] schools are closing the achievement gap by accelerating the progress of students who are at the low end of the scale, while ensuring that their best students are also being challenged,” says Dr. Stephanie G. Robinson, a principal partner with the Education Trust organization in Washington, D.C. The Education Trust group is an independent nonprofit that specializes in achievement gap and education reform research.
Some observers see that a new honesty is emerging about the scope of the problem and the need for a new culture around intellectual development. In contrast to the school reform era of the 1970s and 1980s, Black and Latino underachievement is now being actively discussed and debated by the media, the civil rights establishment and even scholars. For example, Black middle-class parents are coming to grips with the reality that their children, like children from poorer homes, are failing to make gains in academic
performance.

THE CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZING VISION
A vision of this new honesty and cultural change around intellectual development is vividly captured in Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, a newly published Beacon Press book written by civil rights activist Robert P. Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, and journalist Charlie Cobb Jr., also a civil rights activist.
Moses, who attained legendary status for his courage and determination during the Mississippi voting rights campaigns of the 1960s, has been using civil rights strategies to organize and motivate school children to study mathematics.
Since 1982, his Algebra Project has evolved into a national program that teaches math literacy to rural and inner-city students at 28 sites — schools, churches and community centers.
Operating initially with funds from a MacArthur Foundation grant award won in the early 1980s, Moses established the Algebra Project out of the belief that math literacy represents the key to economic empowerment and opportunity. “This is a cultural struggle, the creation of a culture of mathematical literacy that’s going to operate within the Black community as church culture does,” according to the authors.
In Radical Equations, Moses recalls the cultural and political change that took root in communities where Blacks overcame the denial of their voting rights. Organizers such as Moses and Cobb were successful in encouraging local Black citizens to demand their voting rights.
The Algebra Project gets students and their
parents demanding changes in math education in their community schools, according to Moses.
“The Algebra Project is first and foremost an organizing project — a community organizing project — rather than a traditional program of school reform. It draws its inspiration and its methods from the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. …The lessons of the movement in Mississippi are exactly the lessons we need to learn and put into practice in order to transform the education of our children and their prospects for the future,” according to Radical Equations.
The vision posed by Moses appears to offer both a compelling critique of American education policy and a call for self-analysis and community organizing around the culture of education by Blacks and others. Moses argues that schools in the rural South and later in the urban Midwest and North were not established to seriously educate Blacks. Minorities and poor students have long been relegated to second-class schools, he contends.
The notion of educating American students to attain math and science literacy is a relatively new concept, according to Moses. “The traditional role of science and math education has been to train an elite, create a priesthood, find a few bright students and bring them into university research. It hasn’t been a literacy effort,” Moses and Cobb write in Radical Equations.
“The Algebra Project is founded on the idea that the ongoing struggle for citizenship and equality for minority people is now linked to an issue of math and science literacy,” the book says.
Dr. Frank Davis, a professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., has helped evaluate the Algebra Project for the National Science Foundation, says the initiative is beginning to attract a cadre of faculty members from both education schools and math and science departments at Black colleges. But he adds the community organizing component represents a unique track for education reform.
“[Community organizing] is not a typical route for reform around curricula,” Davis says. 
Dave Dennis, director of Positive Innovations, a Mississippi-based organization leading the Algebra Project in the South, says that while scholars are beginning to get involved with the Algebra Project, the program’s focus remains largely committed to “organizing.” That focus is critical because citizens are learning to push for better education.
“We’re very focused on developing the demand side,” Dennis says. 



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