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Maryland Institute Focuses on Minority Achievement

Maryland Institute Focuses on Minority Achievement
By Ronald RoachCOLLEGE PARK, Md.
After a nine-month delay resulting from the Sept. 11terrorist attacks on America, Maryland officials hosted an inaugural conference to showcase the Maryland Institute for Minority Achievement and Urban Education. The institute, which is based at the University of Maryland-College Park, builds upon efforts by state education officials to eliminate the minority achievement gap. Nationally, the minority achievement gap has been defined most dramatically by the comparison of Black and Latino K-12 student scores in math and reading standardized tests with that of White and Asian American students over the past three decades.
The June conference, originally slated for Sept. 12, 2001, gave University of Maryland officials an opportunity to unveil the institute’s mission and research goals with regard to collaborating with entities, such as the state’s county school systems, the state department of education, and the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
“It is imperative that school districts make real progress on closing the minority achievement gap, but it will take more than good ideas and good intentions. Districts have the best chance if they base reforms on research and school-tested techniques, and then follow up with rigorous routine evaluations,” says Dr. Edna Mora Szymanski, dean of Maryland’s College of Education.
The conference theme, “Achievement — A Shared Imperative” reflects the view of Maryland officials that a research institute on minority achievement is justified by evidence showing school districts can’t close the persistent and widening achievement gap alone, according to Maryland officials.
 More than 200 national, state and local education officials, academic scholars, corporate and governmental leaders attended the two-day conference held on the College Park campus. Hyundai Motor America and Lockheed Martin provided corporate sponsorship for the conference. The institute, a joint effort of the University of Maryland’s College of Education and the Maryland state department of education, was launched in the summer of 2001. Dr. Martin L. Johnson, associate dean of the college of education, serves as the institute’s director.
Among the many topics covered during the conference, speakers highlighted teacher preparation and training; the “Leave No Child Behind” education policies of President Bush; Maryland county school system initiatives; the impact of parent and peer culture on academic performance; and the role of research in education reform.
A number of speakers identified the lack of teacher training and certification, and teacher shortages as particularly acute in school systems that have the highest concentration of low-performing schools.
“Teacher quality is the No. 1 problem we have in our schools. The teacher quality issue is front and center on the achievement gap. We have to raise the bar for performance,” proclaimed Maryland state Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s County.
Attention to the impact of parental involvement and peer influence on students surfaced in both a speech and a small group presentation given by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, an influential Harvard economist who has studied and published extensively on the Black-White student achievement gap (see Black Issues, March 1, 2001).   
Noting that studies are showing differences in book ownership and emphasis on early reading between Black and White households, Ferguson told conference attendees that the parenting style data has been a potentially volatile topic to highlight in minority achievement gap research.
“Research shows that the number of books in Black homes are fewer than in White homes, even among the college-educated Black parents. That kind of (information) is hard to talk about in racially mixed company.”
Though he touched upon the parental/peer issue briefly in his conference talk and more broadly during his small group presentation, Ferguson emphasized that there has been too little focus on the evaluation of classroom instruction and effectiveness in basic skills instruction. “We have to have teachers who have strong basic skills,” he urged.
The conference keynote speaker, the Rev. W. Franklin Richardson II of Mount Vernon, N.Y., energized the conference with a rousing speech that described the positive transformation of the Mount Vernon school system after years of neglect under the control of corrupt political leadership. When local Black citizens mobilized and voted out corrupt school board members, the system underwent improvement, and went from being one of the lowest performing school districts in New York state to one of the most improved, according Richardson.   
“It’s my view that we’ve not made education our highest priority,” Richardson chided.
Though admitting he takes pride in having played a leadership role in the transformation of the Mount Vernon schools, Richardson says the focus of citizens and leaders has to remain with providing quality education for all children. “We have to ensure that our future will be better than our past,” he said.  

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