Reporter’s Notebook

October 27, 1999 3 min read

Urban Districts Cited for Shrinking Minority-Achievement Gap

The gaps in academic achievement between minority students and their white counterparts are shrinking in some cities, according to data released at the recent Council of the Great City Schools meeting here.

Eleven urban school systems were identified in the report for documenting that blacks and Hispanics had closed the gap on standardized-test scores in recent years.

The preliminary report on 48 districts was produced by a national task force formed last year by the Washington-based city schools’ group, which met here Oct. 13-17. A follow-up report is due in March.

In general, the most progress toward closing achievement gaps in the 11 school systems cited was made in the early grades, and African-American students tended to close the gap with whites slightly more than Hispanic students did.

For example, Boston’s black 9th graders made up 6 percentage points, and Hispanic 9th graders closed the gap by 5 percentage points, between 1996 and 1998 on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Education, but they remain well behind their white peers.

In Broward County, Fla., black students in grades 4, 8, and 10 closed ground on white students on the state’s writing assessment between 1994 and 1998. The largest of those gains was by 4th graders, who halved the score gap from 44 percentage points to 22.

The other districts cited for their gains were: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; El Paso, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; Houston; Jefferson County, Ky.; Miami-Dade County; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Seattle.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the city schools group, linked the improvements to comprehensive reading programs, increasingly rigorous course selection, and data that better target areas of student need.

Copies of “Closing the Achievement Gaps in Urban Schools” are available from the council for $10 each, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Suite 702, Washington, DC 20002 or free on the group’s World Wide Web site at
home/achievement_ga ps.htm

The disparity in performance between racial groups also took center stage during a forum moderated by journalist Carl Rowan.

Mr. Rowan quickly raised emotions among the panelists by asking whether closing the achievement gap was even possible, given inequities in education resources. “Aren’t we setting a trap for schools thinking we can change some things that are part of our class structure?” he said.

Rosa Smith

Not necessarily, said Rosa Smith, the Columbus, Ohio, schools superintendent.

“We have participated in dual systems. We teach some and not others,” she agreed. “But soft accountability has allowed that. We can maintain excellence where it exists and raise it where it doesn’t exist.”

Roger Cuervas, the schools chief in Florida’s Miami-Dade County system, said the focus on K-12 achievement must be expanded. “The gap is growing in ages zero to 5. That’s where we need to go.”

Mr. Rowan also challenged the panelists on teacher quality: “I get the sense that the poorest teachers go to the poorest neighborhoods. Is that true?”

Minneapolis school board member Judith Farmer said her local unions had helped focus on teacher improvement. But, she warned, teachers “need to realize they must get better at what they’re doing, or someone else will be doing it.”

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, added: “If teachers don’t feel pressure for student achievement, then we are building an accountability system on the backs of children.”

Among the standouts during the council’s 43rd annual fall conference, attended by more than 600 people, was Houston’s superintendent, Rod Paige.

Rod Paige

Mr. Paige and officials from the 211,000-student system were featured at several workshops, in which they talked about community outreach, reading initiatives, and accountability in the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Mr. Paige also was a co-recipient of the group’s Richard R. Greene Award for outstanding contributions to urban education, along with Ms. Farmer of Minneapolis.

“America’s urban school systems are coming back,” Mr. Paige said in an interview. “We have a long way to go, but we are making progress where the public wants us to make progress.”

--Robert C.

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