Unmet Promise: Raising Minority Achievement

By Debra Viadero & Robert C. Johnston — March 15, 2000 16 min read
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First of a four-part series

About 3.4 million students entered kindergarten in U.S. public schools last fall, and already, at the dawn of their educational careers, researchers foresee widely different futures for them.

Whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Native American, or Asian-American will, to a large extent, predict their success in school, whether they go to college, and how much money they will earn as adults.

By 2019, when they are 24 years old, current trends indicate that the white children who are now nearing the end of their first year in school will be twice as likely as their African-American classmates, and three times as likely as Hispanics, to have a college degree.

The disparity in school performance tied to race and ethnicity, known as the achievement gap, shows up in grades, test scores, course selection, and college completion. It happens in cities and in suburbs and in rural school districts. The gaps are so pronounced that in 1996, several national tests found African-American and Hispanic 12th graders scoring at roughly the same levels in reading and math as white 8th graders.

After decades of school desegregation efforts, during which the gap between blacks and whites closed substantially, progress has stalled. At the same time, the greater diversity of the school population and the rapid growth of the Hispanic population and other ethnic groups have reshaped the problem with a more complex set of issues.

Those factors, combined with a much stronger focus on test scores in K-12 education and the erosion of affirmative action policies in university admissions, have raised the achievement-gap issue to the forefront of the national debate about schools, and created a new sense that something needs to be done.

“Closing the gap has to be a societal goal,” said Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington. “To do otherwise is to admit to failure, tolerate racial differences, and give up on the very fundamental ideals of America.”

The stakes are high—and not only for the millions of children whose lives will be most directly affected. For the nation as a whole, the economic and cultural implications of a continued failure to fully prepare millions of minority children for a complicated and technology-driven economy are huge.

And some experts believe the future of public education is on the line as well. At a time when American schools have committed themselves to high standards for all students, an inability to close the achievement gaps may lead parents in minority communities to lose faith in the ability of the schools to educate their children.

“This may be the last opportunity that the state and school districts have to respond and keep minority parents supportive of public schools,” said Greg Mahout, the executive director of the North Carolina Justice and Community Development Center, a non-profit advocacy group for low-income people which is located in Raleigh, N.C.

Just as African-Americans are taking a second look at traditional desegregation remedies as a way of raising the quality of education, he suggested, so too might they begin seeking tuition vouchers to leave the public schools altogether.

Societal Changes

Demographic projections have inspired much of the new concern over the achievement gap. African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians now account for one-third of the 54 million children in the nation’s K-12 classrooms. That share, statisticians predict, will grow to two-thirds over the next 15 years.

So, too, will grow the share of minority children whose parents are poor or lack a high school diploma, according to data compiled for the College Board by the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. For example, Hispanic children, who were 2.2 times more likely than white children to grow up in poverty a decade ago, will be 2.6 times more likely to be poor in 2015. “America is a diverse society in which educational differences have the potential to become a progressively larger source of inequality and social conflict,’' a national task force on minority achievement formed in 1997 by the College Board wrote in its report last fall.

Disparities in academic achievement between different racial and ethnic groups appear early.

By kindergarten, minority pupils already lag behind their white classmates in early reading and math skills. The gaps widen in elementary school and then remain fixed through high school, according to Meredith Phillips, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and the co-editor of The Black-White Test Score Gap.That 1998 book concludes that blacks scored below three-quarters of their white counterparts on a whole range of standardized tests, including the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests that showed minority 12th graders scoring on par with younger white students. “For African-Americans to catch up by the time they get to high school, they’re going to have to work twice as hard,” Ms. Phillips said.

Even more frustrating, the gaps appear greatest at the top of the achievement spectrum. Though they make up one-third of high school seniors, African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian students accounted for only one in 10 of the 12th graders who scored at the “advanced” levels on the most recent NAEP reading, mathematics, and science tests.

There are exceptions among minority groups in their school performance. Asian-Americans constitute a disproportionate share of top students. Some evidence suggests that black students who have immigrated from Caribbean nations may do almost as well.

But the one improvement that many educators had hoped to see as more blacks and Hispanics rose to the middle class has failed to emerge: Stubborn gaps persist even in integrated, largely middle-class suburbs like Evanston, Ill., and Montclair, N.J.

“If districts like Montclair can’t make a difference, then people have a right to look at alternatives,” warned Michael J. Osnato, the superintendent of schools in the suburban New Jersey district of 5,930 students about 10 miles south of New York City.

Early Progress

During the 1970s and 1980s, blacks and Hispanics made strides in narrowing the academic gulf separating them from their white counterparts. From 1970, for example, when NAEP first started taking a pulse on student achievement, to the 1990s, the gap between minority and majority groups shrank by nearly half.

David Grissmer, a senior management scientist at RAND, said changes flowing from the civil rights movement, school desegregation, and the federal anti-poverty programs of the 1960s helped nudge African-Americans’ scores up. While blacks in newly desegregated Southern schools racked up the largest gains in that period, test scores for Northern blacks improved, too.

“I think all of it made the nation more aware that African-American students’ education was going to be taken more seriously,” Mr. Grissmer said.

The improvements in minority achievement were also beginning to translate to real gains in college-going rates. National data show that African-Americans and, to a lesser degree, Hispanics, were graduating from high school and enrolling in college at rates near those of whites. Beneath the surface, however, disparities remained. For one, even though more minority students were going to college, disproportionately few of them were leaving with diplomas.

By 1988, even the test-score improvements had seemingly come to a halt, and experts are still wondering why. Explanations run the gamut from statistical anomalies attributable to changes in testing procedures to the distractions presented by the birth of “hip hop” culture.

“What we did was make progress on very rudimentary skills,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that promotes high academic standards for all students. “By the 1980s, that stretch had literally maxed out, and that should have been a signal for us to shift strategies.”

National studies by the Education Trust and other groups show that minority students, many of whom attend poor, urban schools, get poorer-quality instruction than their white or suburban counterparts. They take fewer Advanced Placement and honors courses, have less qualified teachers, get fewer resources, and face harsher discipline when they violate school rules.

Some of the statistics are striking:

  • Nearly half of New York City’s teaching force in the 1997-98 school year had failed certification tests in math—compared with a little over a fifth of teachers in the surrounding suburbs and less than a quarter of the teachers throughout the rest of the state.
  • Even though black students make up 23 percent of the student population in Providence, R.I., they constitute only 9 percent of students in the district’s gifted and AP classes. Similar imbalances can be found in advanced classes elsewhere, including Austin, Texas; Boston; Durham, N.C.; and San Francisco.
  • In San Francisco, African-American students are suspended from school in numbers more than three times their proportion of the school population.
  • From birth to high school graduation, the average child in New York City will see about $25,975 less spent on his or her education than the average child elsewhere in the state, according to a recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization of urban districts.

“Though the discrimination may not be intentional, its persistence and pervasiveness, as measured by actual statistical impacts, amounts to a deep pattern of institutional racism in U.S. public schools,” contends the Applied Research Center, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that collected some of the statistics listed above in a study of 12 urban districts.

When teachers expect less of students, they get less—and that can skew standards from school to school. Data from the U.S. Department of Education suggest, for example, that an A student in a big-city school is achieving at about the same level as B and C students in suburban districts.

Seeking Answers

But some experts also blame a peer culture among African Americans that puts down top-notch students as “acting white.”

“Kids care more about the reactions of their peers than they do about the reactions of their parents or teachers, and that’s real,” said Terry Pollack, the chairman of the social studies department at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a middle-class Cleveland suburb.

Researchers also chalk up some of the differences to variations in parenting. Anecdotal evidence suggests, for example, that white parents may interact with their young children in ways that better support school success. They might, for example, ask children more questions or to justify their requests.

And as children get older, African-American and Hispanic parents may be less inclined to pressure them to do well in school or to push for their placement in advanced classes.

“The gap in test scores may be influenced by the level of insistence on the part of parents that children engage their studies seriously,” said James Edward Harris, the president of the Montclair chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the education coordinator for the organization’s New Jersey conference. “There is a level of underinvolvement of black folks at every level of the education enterprise.”

There is far too little research about the various theories, however, and the bottom line is that no one knows for sure what causes the achievement gap.

Poverty, while a big factor, does not account for all of the differences. Nor does family structure. All other things being equal, young children growing up in single-parent homes score just as high on preschool vocabulary tests as children from intact families.

And the idea that the disparities somehow stem from differences in genetic makeup, which drew widespread attention following the publication in 1994 of a book on the subject, The Bell Curve, is almost universally disputed by researchers in many fields.

A ‘Messy’ Debate

A changing political climate, however, may be opening the way for a more definitive look at the problem and ways of dealing with it. “It’s going to be messy because people are going to be saying stuff that other people don’t want to hear or don’t want to believe,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard University economist who is studying the achievement-gap issue. “But the way to get around it is to design research projects directed unflinchingly toward answering questions about which we have different beliefs.”

Efforts are under way on many fronts—from individual schools and communities to national advocacy groups and think tanks—that promise new awareness of the seemingly preordained underachievement of so many children:

  • Last year, the Council of the Great City Schools formed the National Task Force on Closing Achievement Gaps. The panel’s first report came out last fall and identified more than a dozen city school systems where the gaps are narrowing. But the report also faulted districts for inconsistency in tracking achievement by race, language, gender, and income.

“We must have a sense of urgency about the work we do and how we do it; otherwise, we may, without an efficacious effort, lose another generation,” said Clifford B. Janey, a co-chairman of the task force and the superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., schools.

  • Concerned about the lack of minorities at upper achievement levels, the College Board’s 31-member task force has released reports in the past six months that review the extent of the problem, predict performance for different racial groups, and recommend how to raise minority success in higher education. “We are finding a much higher degree of tolerance for discussion than we experienced five to 10 years ago,” said Edmund W. Gordon, a Yale University professor who co-chairs that panel.

•The National Urban League kicked off the Campaign for African-American Achievement last summer. Backed by a $25 million, five-year grant from the Lilly Endowment, the campaign urges black parents and local leaders to demand high achievement as the norm for their children and schools.

“We are trying to construct a different kind of group and peer message,” said Hugh B. Price, the president of the New York City-based Urban League. “We are very encouraged by the results. There seems to be much greater thirst for achievement by young people than most people realize.”

•A group of 15 suburban and small-city districts, many of them in university towns with well-to-do students, have formed a coalition to study and share data on non-Asian minority achievement. The group stands out because the minority students being studied have few of the financial hardships that slow academic performance.

“It’s stunning that more of us were not disaggregating the numbers to get a better feel for our kids,” said Allan Alson, the superintendent of the Evanston Township high school system near Chicago, who helped start the network. “Hopefully, this creates a spirit of cooperation and urgency.”

  • Inspired by the suburban districts’ example, 27 city districts—including Fort Wayne, Ind.; Houston; Milwaukee; and Tulsa, Okla.—have also joined forces to tackle the problems.

Success Stories

As serious interest in the achievement gap grows, the stories behind several successes are beginning to emerge.

Texas A&M University researchers say that after studying the best schools for educating blacks and Hispanics in their state, they found that solid, consistent implementation of curricular programs was more important than the programs themselves. “We have phonics and non-phonics schools, and they both do well,” said Kenneth J. Meier, a liberal-arts professor at the university in College Station who worked on the studies.

Long-term leadership with high expectations is also important. “At the low end, districts give up and blame the environment,” Mr. Meier said. “You never see that in good districts. Their attitude is, ‘We can teach anybody to learn.’”

In U.S Department of Defense schools around the world, low-income, highly mobile minority students perform at levels that are much closer to their white peers’ than in civilian-operated schools. The students in Defense Department schools, who are surrounded by a supportive military community, also significantly outperform their minority counterparts in civilian public schools.

A Washington think tank, the Heritage Foundation, scoured the nation last year before honoring seven principals of high-performing, low-income, and predominantly minority schools as part of its “No Excuses” campaign.

The principals’ success was largely attributed to their having latitude in curricular and spending decisions, “tangible and unyielding goals,” careful teacher recruitment, regular student assessments, and systematic parent outreach.

“Other schools don’t study successful schools,” said Samuel Casey Carter, a Heritage Foundation fellow who is writing a report on the study. “We must recognize and look at schools that reach and establish high levels of achievement.”

If a lesson can be gleaned from such stories, it may be that reversing the trend is no accident.

Challenging the Myths

About This Series
• Part 1March 15, 2000: Despite decades of attention, gaps in the achievement of minority students remain one of the most pressing problems in education.
Part 2March 22, 2000: Why do the achievement gaps persist? Some blame it on teachers; others say parents need to be stronger advocates and cut down on TV time. In a Korean-American community, parents take no chances when it comes to their children’s education.
Part 3March 29, 2000: Schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense for children of military families may offer lessons on how to raise the achievement of low-income minority students.
Part 4April 5, 2000: There are no sure answers, but some experts say better teaching, smaller classes, the right schoolwide improvement program, and fairer allocation of resources can shrink achievement gaps. A Houston-area district has some answers of its own.
Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

When officials of the Montgomery County, Md., schools sought to improve reading skills, they retrained principals and teachers, added a 90-minute daily reading block, and hired enough teachers to shrink reading classes to about 11 students.

The result? The proportion of black 2nd graders who were reading at grade level rose from 45 percent to 68 percent between February and June of last year. Though that figure was 10 percentage points behind the 78 percent for white students, the gap had been 17 points in February.

Aside from such inspired initiatives at the local level, it is hard to assess whether the nation as a whole is ready for a serious, sustained assault on the achievement gap. Daniel Yankelovich, a national pollster, observes that public opinion on race will be a major factor in any such effort.

While Americans are more accepting of racial and ethnic diversity, he contends that very acceptance could make them less eager to attack inequalities.

“In the past, civil rights leaders were able to play on guilt,” Mr. Yankelovich argued. “As people become more accepting, they don’t feel guilty. Guilt is no longer operative.”

Instead, he and others suggest, stereotypes must be altered by educators or in the media.

“There’s the mythology that all blacks have to be less intelligent than all whites,” he said. “If you have stories of blacks outperforming whites, you cast doubts on the theory.”

The first and biggest hurdle, he said, may be a simple conversation about the uncomfortable issue of race. “We have gone about as far as we can go without having a real dialogue with each other,” Mr. Yankelovich said. “It seems we need that.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Unmet Promise: Raising Minority Achievement


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