Scholars Cite History’s Legacy, Rap Music for Achievement Gap

Scholars Cite History’s Legacy, Rap Music for Achievement Gap

By Mark Baard

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.
Dr. Glenn C. Loury is losing sleep over the achievement gap between Blacks and Whites in public schools. But it’s not merely low test scores in the nation’s elementary and middle schools that disturbs him. Loury is alarmed that America’s political leaders, are leaving the job of fixing the nation’s racial disparities to educators alone.

“I feel like a move is being made,” said Loury, “to change the definition of the problem to something that is not amenable to political treatment.”

Loury, a Brown University economics professor, made those remarks last month in an address to education experts at the Second Annual Conference of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.
Harvard launched the Achievement Gap Initiative last year to study the differences among racial groups, which are greatest between Blacks and Whites, according to many of the statistics presented at the conference.

The causes of the gap — as reflected by standardized test scores and high school and college dropout rates — “are a legacy of a history,” said Loury, in an apparent reference to slavery, segregation and the redlining of school districts. “The achievement gap is a deeply rooted reflection of a thousand different forces, [including] the deeply entrenched segregation of our lives,” he said.

Strictly educational fixes to the Black-White gap have borne only limited results. School desegregation, changing early parenting behaviors, increasing classroom learning times and master’s degree requirements for K-12 teachers were among the possible tactics discussed at the conference.

Some education experts at the conference said the No Child Left Behind Act is partly responsible for putting educators “in a pickle,” as University of California, Berkeley education professor W. Norton Grubb put it. “Yes, schools need to be reformed,” he said, “but we also need urban development and health and welfare policies.”

Political leaders and social scientists also need to attack cultural influences on Black kids, said Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson, senior research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Wiener Center for Social Policy Research and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative.

Ferguson even suggested that rap music may be behind a recent broadening of the gap.

Black and Hispanic teenagers made dramatic gains in academic achievement throughout the 1970s and 1980s, according to statistics cited by Ferguson. But that progress ended abruptly in the late 1980s, when leisure reading levels and class attendance for Blacks plunged.

The Black-White gap in reading scores in the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress also declined suddenly after 1988. The gap grew to more than 37 points by 1992.
“It may just be a coincidence,” said Ferguson, “but 1988-1992 was the commercial take-off period for hip-hop and rap music.”

Other differences in the social structures and lifestyles of racial groups are contributing to the gap, said Dr. Roland G. Fryer, assistant professor of economics at Harvard.

In a child’s first year, there is no Black-White gap in mental ability, if you control for low birth weight, low income, a low number of books in the home and other problems that affect African-American families more than Whites, Fryer said.

Indeed, Blacks initially perform better than Whites.

But from elementary school on up, Blacks, whatever their personal circumstances, lose ground quickly to Whites.

Another problem: Many Black teens won’t motivate themselves for an experience —  college — that to them is an abstraction, said conference attendee Donna Heiland, vice president of the Teagle Foundation.

The Teagle Foundation works to provide liberal arts college educations and scholarships to low-income students in New York City.

Many nonprofits offer test-prep courses and assistance filling out admissions applications. But Teagle’s new program, College-Community Connections, is a broad partnership between 10 community organizations and 10 New York City colleges.

Through Teagle, college professors will actually help to develop college preparatory courses that will prepare low-income children to take on a liberal arts education, said Heiland.

“We want to give young people a real sense of the thrill and the possibilities that we all experience in college,” said Heiland.
Heiland said she believes that partnerships between educational institutions and community groups are the best way to begin closing the Black-White achievement gap.

Loury, the sleepless Brown University economist, said he has nothing against the efforts of community organizations and school reformers.

“I would sleep a little bit better,” said Loury, “if we were [being] strategically smart, and taking responsibility at the social level.”



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