The Personality of the K-12 Achievement Gap

I still remember my academic bliss in fourth grade. At a small private school in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., in a relatively large class taught by Mrs. Miles, I received 100 on all of my final exams. It probably went to my head but a cocky 9-year-old is considered cute.

Almost 20 years later, whenever I think about fourth grade I smile. That was the pinnacle of my K-12 academic life. But as a ninth-grader at a public high school with 4,000 students in Queens, I fell to the abyss of my K-12 years. I had come to hate school. I hated reading. I hated teachers. The only thing I liked about school was playing basketball on its junior varsity team. 

These emotions reflected in my grades. I needed two Cs and three Ds to stay eligible for the team. And what did I get? Two Cs and three Ds (the rest Fs). When I think about that lost year, I smile too. But it is a different type of smile. It is a smile of wonder and self-critique. So whenever I read a story about the achievement gap, like the one in Nov. 9’s New York Times, it touches the depths of my heart. 

The article discussed a new report, “A Call for Change,” released Tuesday by the Council of the Great City Schools. The study found the achievement gap — particularly between Black and White boys — is more severe than generally acknowledged. And poverty alone doesn’t account for the gap because White boys who live in poverty fare about the same as Black boys who are not impoverished.        

I hope this report moves the conversation about the causes of the gap into other places while still including class as a central factor. In examining the achievement gap among boys, there’s at least four other central factors — race, gender, space and culture. A model for the achievement of Black boys must take all five into account. 

In this supposed post-racial society, some educational reformers try to avoid the discussion about the pervasiveness of racism in education because it is almost becoming politically incorrect to place race on the mainstream table. Racism leading to mass incarceration, disrupted families, unemployment, underemployment and social oblivion — specifically as it is faced by the parents and communities of these children — is a prevailing facet of this discussion. A discussion about achievement that does not include racism is small talk.

Why do some teachers, students and administrators have lower expectations for Black boys than they do Black girls and other races? Why this gendered prejudice in expectations? These questions must be answered by the problem-solvers. Furthermore, the spatial differences between the urban and suburban need to be a part of the conversation. And, finally, educators have documented the American educational system’s cultural biases since the 1960s. I remember dropping out of International Baccalaureate English II in 12th grade and a month later winning a countywide speech contest on Martin Luther King. My teacher couldn’t wrap her head around why I failed to understand Shakespeare but could master King’s rhetoric. The cultural critique and voices of Afrocentric educators has to be a part of the equation for the solution.

This K-12 problem is a problem for higher education. If we don’t contribute to eliminating the gap in K-12, then the gap will remain in our classrooms.  Diversity in higher education will never be actualized until the achievement problem is resolved. And it can be resolved. College allowed me to regain the confidence I flaunted in fourth grade. I courted, dated and fell in love with education again there. College provided me another set of inspirational teachers and a nurturing environment that demanded my achievement.

When I look out on the educational landscape, I am encouraged because I see several innovative programs, schools and educators taking the five central factors into account. I am also smiling because I remember the fourth grade. I want every Black boy to experience that feeling and we can bring it to them by tackling all five factors.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University. He is on leave as an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.