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Perspectives: Can the Achievement Gap Be Closed?

It is said that preparing the youth for good citizenship and for living a productive life is a universally recognized purpose of private and public schools.

Therefore, to answer the question, “Can the achievement gap be closed?” we need to examine objectively both the purpose and the history of our educational system.

Noted German philosopher Johann Fichte saw education as a “reliable and deliberate instrument for fashioning in a citizen a stable and infallible good will.” Lester Ward, an American sociologist, considered education the “only available means of setting the progressive wheels of society in motion.” Justice Earl Warren saw education as “the very foundation of good citizenship.”

How can America promote good citizenship and instill in all its youth an infallible good will toward each other if its educational system continues to exclude the contributions of people of color from textbooks and school curricula? Most important, how can we close the achievement gap if our youth, especially our students of color, do not see successful men and women they can identify with in their textbooks or in their classrooms? Even though we tend to agree that a just, balanced and self-empowering education is needed for transmitting knowledge and for molding good citizenship, most of our institutions remain Eurocentric, and our curricula remain unaltered. The negative and lasting impact of such exclusive curricula on students of color, especially on Black students, is not difficult to imagine.

Let me share with the reader my own experiences in attending a predominantly White institution of higher education. I came to the United States in my late 20s as a member of the Ethiopian diplomatic corps. When I left my diplomatic post to reside in the United States, I realized that the education I had received in Ethiopia was adequate enough for working in and representing Ethiopia abroad but did not prepare me for life in America. Sensing that I had no marketable skills to make my transition, I decided to go to school and retool myself. I was driven not only to fit in and be gainfully employed, but also to contribute to the society I wanted to be a part of. Moreover, I envisioned that the education I sought would be challenging, exciting and more empowering.

To my surprise, the excitement I expected began to fade away, giving rise to feelings of frustration, powerlessness and alienation. The textbooks I bought for my classes were full of pictures of people who did not look like me. Europeans and Euro-Americans had authored the socio-economic and political theories as well as the major philosophies I was expected to study. I began to be painfully aware of the absence of Asian, Latino/a, Native American, African-American, and African contributions in my textbooks and in the school curricula. Discovering that racial discrimination and stereotyping are facts of life in the United States and learning that only Europeans were capable of producing art, medicine, philosophy and social, economic and political theories was not only hard to swallow but also resulted in nagging questions about the education I had received in Ethiopia.

Even though I questioned the relevance of pursuing my education in the prevailing environment, I knew that I couldn’t afford to drop out or abandon my dream. I remembered Mark Twain’s statement: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Determined not to let schooling interfere with my education, either, I developed a system to help me filter the information I was receiving from my classrooms and the media on a daily basis. I was thus able to take, expand and retain the knowledge I needed to survive and ignore the institutionalized rejection of the contributions of people of color and their invisibility in American education.

Rupert Costo captured my experience with textbooks when he said: “There is not one (American) Indian in the whole of this country that does not cringe in anguish and frustration because of these textbooks. There is not one Indian child who has not come home in shame and tears.”

As long as our textbooks, curricula and educators continue to deny or minimize the contributions of people of color, the achievement gap between Whites and non-Whites and the feelings of powerlessness and invisibility will continue to persist. Without inclusive curricula and pedagogical reform, our classrooms will continue to be places of frustration and alienation for most students of color, and the achievement gap will continue.

—      Dr. Alem Asres is the director of College Diversity and Affirmative Action at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

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