The unclosed achievement gap

January 13, 2011

There's fine words about closing the racial achievement gap, but little to show for it.

THE APPROACHING national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the hot topics in education reform today: the racial achievement gap. Everyone wants to close the gap. Or so it would seem.

Despite the hope many invested in President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) initiative--which highlighted the persistence of the gap and set the goal of closing it by 2014--progress toward that end has been incremental at best.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed to have reduced the gap "by half" in some places. But in the summer of 2010, when the city's tests were rescaled, the scores were revealed to be only half as good as previously believed. Only 40 percent of Black students were found to have met the state's math standards, compared with 75 percent of white students. The new scoring revealed that only 33 percent of Black students met the English standard, while 64 percent of whites and Asians did.

The most reliable measure of the country's academic trends, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), has confirmed a similar picture nationwide. Apart from a period of dramatic progress in the 1970s and '80s, the NAEP has found that the gap widened substantially again during the 1990s, and has neither grown nor declined significantly since.

In July of 2010, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) published a report based on the 2008 NAEP results, which showed, for 13-year-olds, a 28-point racial gap in math scores and a 21-point gap in reading scores. Both of these results represent marginal progress since the 1990s, but both are also wider than they were in the late 1980s.

An analysis of the NAEP's most recent findings, published by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), focused on the situation of African-American male students. Titled "A Call for Change," the report is full of striking revelations. It points out, for example, that in 2009, in large cities, the average mathematics scale score of eighth-grade Black males without disabilities was two points lower than the average score of eighth-grade white males with disabilities.

WHILE BOTH reports hesitate to draw definitive conclusions, they point to glaring socioeconomic factors as the most likely culprit.

Forces working against Black families in the second half of the 20th century, and consequently, against Black education, the ETS finds, include: concentration of public housing in relatively small areas of cities, while well-paying jobs have left central cities; transportation systems built to increase the mobility of suburbanites and reduce the mobility of urban dwellers; and inner-city areas cut off from important sources of tax revenues as a consequence of increasing geographic segregation.

"All of these things were going strong in the lives of Black people born after 1965," ETS researchers report, "the beginning of birth cohorts when progress in closing the achievement gap stopped."

Likewise, the CGCS points to an array of statistical data that shows how the deck is stacked against African-American males before they even enter a classroom.

In a section titled "Readiness to Learn," the CGCS report mentions the fact that in 2008, Black children 17 and under were 50 percent more likely not to be covered by any kind of health insurance. In the same year, they were twice as likely to live in a household where no adult had full-time or year-round employment. In 2007, they point out, 34 percent of Black children lived in poverty, while only 10 percent of white children did.

The ETS report, looking back at the period when the achievement gap was closing, cites several progressive social programs as the likely agents of the positive change. "At the top of the list of factors that may have contributed to progress in closing the gap," the ETS cautiously proposes, "are the federal government's investment in Head Start and Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)."

Furthermore, the report asserts that it's likely desegregation had a positive impact, especially in the South. Third, it cites "compelling evidence" demonstrating that reduction in class sizes "generates higher achievement in the early grades, but also that the effects are larger for minority students."

Predictably, some commentators have jumped on the fact that sections of the CGCS report seem to challenge the notion that that socioeconomic conditions are a significant factor. "Poverty alone does not seem to explain the differences," The New York Times summarized, "Poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches."

But instead of exploring the possibility that racism has manifestations beyond not qualifying for subsidized school lunches, these voices are quick to conclude that the problem must be Black parenting.

Dr. Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, told the Times that there needs to be "conversations people are unwilling to have" about the practices of Black parents--"the activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, how much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy."

Of course, every educator knows that parenting plays an enormous role in a child's development and academic achievement. However, to divorce the question of parenting styles from larger social concerns is utter hypocrisy.

EVEN WITH the "best" parenting techniques available, how much free time parents have to spend with their children, how stressed or relaxed those parents are able to be during that time, and a host of other factors are mostly not something that can be changed merely through conversation.

But the current fad in education "reform" is to put as much daylight as possible between racial justice and social justice. The result is fine words about closing the achievement gap, but little to show for it. Worse, the proposals on offer today--charter schools, privatization, testing, teacher data-reports--threaten to actually widen the gap. Meanwhile, those that have demonstrably had some effect--Head Start, desegregation, smaller class sizes--are ignored.

This is a historic reversal. It was the civil rights movement that placed the onus on society to deal with the effects of racism. "We are likely to find," Dr. King wrote, "that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

Today, the onus is increasingly placed on the individual teacher, the individual student or the parents. Any discussion of poverty or racism is tantamount to "making excuses."

King recognized the magnitude of the task at hand. "It is not merely to bring Negroes up to higher educational levels," he said, "but to close the gap between their educational levels and those of whites."

But in contrast to the current "reform" consensus, King understood that providing a quality education is very much a question of resources. "Much more money has to be spent on education of the children of the poor;" King argued. "The rate of increase in expenditures for the poor has to be greater than for the well-off if the children of the poor are to catch up." He went on to argue for reductions in class sizes, greater community involvement, a greater commitment from educators and a strategy for promoting desegregation.

If we truly want to close the achievement gap, we should remember Dr. King's words. At the end of his life, his perspectives were diametrically opposed to those of today's political elites.

Yet come Monday, they will all line up to praise his dreams of equality. They will quote his famous speech from 1963, but not his perspectives from 1967: "If the society changes its concept by placing the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or a minimum income, dignity will come within reach of all."

First published at the Huffington Post.

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