The Great Divide
Racial achievement gap gains recognition as national concern, but solution continues to elude educators, scholars and policymakers.
By Ronald Roach
Americans know that Black and Latino children, by and large, are not reaching their full potential when it comes to learning and academic performance. But there are exceptions. The question that’s being increasingly asked is how and why exceptions can become the norm.
“I can remember my parents making sure my sister and I learned to read before starting school, and my dad, who is an accountant, having us do math problems on Saturdays to master arithmetic,” says Kenneth Gibbs Jr., a junior at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Gibbs describes his parents as people who “left nothing to chance” when it came to guiding his education as a youngster. Hailing from a middle-class African American family in Durham, N.C., Gibbs enjoys the distinction of being a Meyerhoff scholar at UMBC with a 4.0 grade point average as a biochemistry and molecular biology major.
Gibbs also recalls that his parents had him apply to the highly regarded Durham-based North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, where he finished his last two years of high school, as well as to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where he now excels in the nationally prestigious Meyerhoff scholarship program.
He adds that his desire to tackle difficult subjects has found considerable support from and nurturing by dedicated teachers and professors. At UMBC, he has been able to meet senior professors and researchers from several of the universities to which he plans to apply for a Ph.D. program in biochemistry. “The program helps you to get connected in the science research community,” he says.
The mix of sophisticated parenting, a stimulating home environment and high-quality schooling clearly represents the foundation of Gibbs’ current success. Yet for African American and Latino students in general, having the optimal circumstances for academic success has long proven an elusive attainment for innumerable individuals.
In the half century since the Brown v. Board decision, there remains a wide chasm between the academic achievement of Black and Latino children and that of White and Asian American children. Stark facts, drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test data and cited prominently in Drs. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s recent book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, reveal that the average Black 12th-grade student’s proficiency in basic skills is roughly the same as the average White eighth grader.
“Hispanics do only a little better than African Americans. In reading and U.S. history, their NAEP scores in their senior year of high school are a few points above those of Whites in eighth grade. In math and geography, they are a few points lower,” according to the Thernstroms, a husband-historian and wife-political scientist team who have written extensively about race in America.
The coming demographic shift that’s expected to make the United States a non-White majority nation around the year 2050 is driving a consensus among policy-makers, scholars and educators to shape school reform in ways to close the racial achievement gap. Observers say the long-term prospects for a healthy national economy and social stability depend on boosting the achievement levels of all students.
“It is in everybody’s interests to raise (the) academic achievement of Black and Brown kids,” says Dr. Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard University Kennedy School economist who has studied the achievement gap.
“Closing the achievement gap, many of us believe, is America’s new civil right,” Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, declared at a congressional briefing this past November.
With the Brown anniversary following in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the use of race-conscious affirmative action in higher education, scholars and officials seem to be discussing student achievement as never before. Books by the Thernstroms, the late anthropologist Dr. John Ogbu and Dr. John McWhorter have fueled a sometimes highly charged national discussion on the racial learning gap.
And though the gap gets considerable attention these days, no clear cut, comprehensive road map to the closure of it in K-12 education has yet to emerge. Where we’ve “made less progress is in figuring out what to do,” says veteran psychologist Dr. Edmund W. Gordon, who is the director of the Institute of Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“There’s no one silver bullet. Schools have to improve the quality of teaching. Supplementary education can come with extra instruction, such as in after school programs, and there’s a lot more that parents can do,” offers Dr. Pedro Noguera, an urban schools expert and an education professor at the New York University Steinhardt School of Education.
“I think we have a conceptualization of some of the elements of what good schools are that need to be achieved. What we don’t have is a map of how we get there from where we are. The good news is that there seems to be a steady concern about the issue. It’s been steady enough to keep it on the political agenda of the nation,” says Dr. Michael Nettles, executive director of Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) Education Policy and Research Center.
Finding the Formula
The Black and Latino achievement picture is a multi-dimensional one. At one end, there is the cohort of Black and Latino students who attend predominantly minority schools where teacher quality and preparation is often suspect and the schools enroll high proportions of students from impoverished backgrounds. On the other hand, where Black and Latino students attend racially integrated and affluent schools, they are more likely to be tracked into less demanding classes, placed more often in special education courses, and are assigned to fewer honors and college preparation courses than their White and Asian classmates.
In No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, the Thernstroms call attention to the fact that the “racial gap in academic achievement appears very early in life.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 1998 and 1999, a third to half of Black and Latino students enrolled in kindergarten with test scores in the bottom quarter in math, reading and general knowledge while only a sixth of Whites scored as low.
“And although scholars have not been able to pinpoint the precise reasons, they can identify some of the risk factors that seem to be limiting their intellectual development. Among them: low-birth weight, single-parent households and birth to a very young mother. African American children not only arrive in school less academically prepared; they also tend to be less ready to conform to behavioral demands,” the Thernstroms write.
This past November, the ETS released a report to encourage policy-makers, researchers and educators to consider the multiple factors behind the achievement gap. Anticipated to broaden the thinking about policies to close the gap, the report, “Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress,” identifies the factors before, during and after school that create and continue the racial, ethnic and class learning gaps.
The ETS report specifies 14 factors related to student achievement ranging from birth weight and hunger to lead poisoning, parental involvement and teacher quality. The report also looks at the negative impact for different racial/ethnic and income groups experiencing these factors that impact learning. In all the factors, the ETS report found minority students disadvantaged relative to White students in the conditions and experiences conducive to student achievement.
“This research shows that the achievement gap is not only about what goes on once kids get into the classroom; it’s also about what happens to them before and after school,” says Sharon Robinson, president of ETS’ Educational Policy Leadership Institute.
Though a broad examination of schools, parenting and home life may be pursued by some researchers, there remains a wariness among others to push too hard on community and family concerns. “It’s only worth talking about if we can do something about it,” says Harvard’s Ferguson.
Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, cautions against the perspective that eliminating the racial learning gap would have to rely on both improving schools and solving social problems that affect students. “If you say that to totally close the gap you have to fix every problem” that might lead to unrealistic goals and “a sense of hopelessness” if the emphasis on social support does not come to fruition, she says.
Haycock’s Washington, D.C.-based education advocacy and research group focuses on promoting research on and practices by schools, school districts and states that have had success in raising the academic achievement of minority students. “My reading of the research and my own experience is that the only evidence that we can close the gap is by fixing schools,” she says.
Still, a few in the research and academic community have not shied away from exploring how school reform can be linked to programs that help families create a strong home learning environment as well as healthy lifestyles for their children. The work by Dr. James Comer at Yale University represents one of the best-known examples of such research and experimentation around comprehensive approaches to academic well-being. The Smithsonian Institution recently honored Comer with their 7th Annual John P. McGovern Award in Behavioral Sciences for developing influential ideas around community, family and school models to support education.
In addition to Comer, Columbia University’s Gordon maintains a highly active research practice targeted at boosting minority student achievement. Believing that school reform alone is not going to solve the problem of the racial learning gap, Gordon has high hopes for “supplementary education,” which include the learning activities parents can have their children pursue outside of school. Along with his research associate, Beatrice L. Bridglall, Gordon has written a book on supplementary education to be published this year.
In the effort during the 1980s and 1990s to bring the racial achievement gap to the public’s attention, Gordon considers one of the “biggest accomplishments has been a change in that attitude” of not wanting Black (and Latino) achievement to be discussed.
“Most people of color were embarrassed to talk about it,” he recalls about the reluctance of scholars and educators to discuss the issue for fear that it would encourage people to believe that Blacks and Latinos were genetically less intelligent than others.
At age 82, Gordon says he wants very much to contribute the most he can to the research and practices that will revolutionize learning for Black and Latino children. For his pioneering work as one of the authors of the Head Start program and as a leader in numerous other research-based education initiatives, ETS earlier this month announced the creation of the Edmund W. Gordon Chair for Policy Evaluation and Research.
“It’s a recognition of the distinguished career and contribution that Ed Gordon has made to education research and scholarship,” says Nettles, the first appointee to the chair.
What’s emerging as an arena of considerable tension and disagreement is the role that culture plays in fostering or not fostering intellectual development of Black and Latino children. While talk about genetic differences among racial groups has largely faded away in serious policy and research settings, discussion about culture has become the “hot potato” of the racial learning gap debate.
In their book, the Thernstroms, who are considered politically conservative, entertain the idea that culture may have a significant role in explaining why racial gaps in learning prevail. They write that “Culture is a loose and slippery term, and we do not use it to imply a fixed set of group traits, but rather values, attitudes and skills that are shaped and reshaped by environment.”
The willingness to focus on Black culture as an explanation for academic underperformance also figures prominently in McWhorter’s Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Ogbu’s books, which contend that among African Americans a significant obstacle to intellectual development may rest with cultural attitudes and parenting practices. Though scholars and educators have recently begun to probe attitudes, popular culture, parenting practices and social identity in the effort to create a more positive environment for academic achievement among minority students, the idea that cultural attitudes and even parenting practices may lead to shortchanging children’s intellectual development often invites charges of “blaming the victim.”
NYU’s Noguera finds considerable fault with the perspectives and approaches by the Thernstroms, McWhorter and Ogbu. “In an insidious way, (Ogbu) wants to blame Black kids for their own failure. Ron Ferguson ends up with a much more nuanced and more complex picture” than Ogbu, according to Noguera.
In Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, his last book before his untimely death in 2003, Ogbu advanced the idea that in regards to academics there is a “culture of disengagement” among African American parents and children in suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio. By focusing on children from educated, middle-class, native-born Black families, Ogbu examined the very students whose academic performance and standardized test scores are being closely scrutinized in comparison to the White and Asian American students seeking admission to elite institutions.
The affirmative action debate has brought enormous attention to the competitiveness of the best-prepared Black American students. Evidence of Black student performance in affluent communities, such as majority-Black Prince George’s County in Maryland and other integrated suburbs like Shaker Heights, have shown Blacks lagging in comparison to Whites.
Says Ferguson about the middle-class kids he has surveyed in Shaker Heights, “I don’t find a culture of disengagement among Black students there, but I see why (Ogbu) did… The difference partly is in what he infers and what I read off the rest of my data because the things he has to infer I ask students direct questions on. And their answers to those questions don’t support his inferences.
“The patterns in the findings indicate to me that the main gap is the skills gap; it’s not an attitude gap,” Ferguson contends.
When negative attitudes about school do surface, “The question is why Black kids develop oppositional behavior. That’s where I part company with Ogbu and McWhorter. They don’t look at where the attitudes come from. They say it’s pre-existing,” Noguera says.
“Their analysis begins and ends with the attitudes they find among students they write about. Black students don’t come to school predisposed to being anti-intellectual. It’s what happens in schools” that makes them so, he adds. Ogbu “assumes schools are benign and neutral. They aren’t,” contends Noguera, who also considered the late Ogbu a friend and colleague.
Dr. Mary Patillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University, says she doesn’t believe there’s a lack of motivation among middle-class Black families for their children to do well, but adds that family resources and children’s academic skill sets may be lacking. She believes there’s too much made of oppositional identity as a reason as to why African American children aren’t achieving.
“Most of youth culture is oppositional,” Patillo says.
Noguera says that a more constructive approach than the one Ogbu took is to closely investigate the relationships Black and Latino students have with their teachers. “We don’t really understand how motivation gets students to succeed, or why (capable students) don’t invest more time into being academically proficient. We don’t know what’s happening with kids,” he says.
“I think that what we don’t know is how racial stereotypes are having an affect on the abilities of Black kids. We need to have more ethnographic research. We need more insight on positive relationships between minority students and their teachers, and how to do a better job of preparing teachers,” Noguera asserts.
Despite misgivings that the public may have with the standards and accountability movement in K-12 education, advocates for closing the learning gap acknowledge that the No Child Left Behind legislation enacted by the Bush administration has made the gap a more widely known policy issue than it would have been if solely left to the states. The legislation has required all states to administer tests annually to all students in elementary schools, and to report the results by race. For organizations, such as the Education Trust, school districts and states have been clamoring to obtain information and data on strategies that can assist efforts to close the learning gap.
“With No Child Left Behind, we no longer have to fight to get their attention,” Haycock says of state governments and school districts.
Even though a number of state and local officials have complained the legislation is too intrusive, school districts are shifting from a posture of either not believing much could be done or not understanding the issue too well to paying close attention to states that are raising minority achievement levels. “We know that the gap can be closed because we have enough evidence from states, such as North Carolina, that minority children can improve their learning,” she says.
Nettles of ETS says policy-makers and educators have to be mindful of continually enlisting broad public support on behalf of closing the achievement gap. “I think public policy-makers and educators who are concerned about this issue also need to know how much the public is invested in it beyond the language of the national policy. That’s really important because the national policy has to galvanize and mobilize people,” he says.
In some respects, educators, scholars and policy-makers are looking at what will amount to a campaign needing decades to complete. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the UMBC and the founder of the Meyerhoff scholars program, is among the scholars and educators who expect for many years to come to push a frank but hopeful message on minority academic achievement.
“People have gotten angry with my bluntness, but I tell them we have to work harder to help our kids do better. We’re not emphasizing intellectual development enough,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com