Lifting Minority Achievement: Complex Answers

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The Achievement Gap Once a month or so, a group of African-American juniors and seniors at Shaker Heights High School trades T-shirts and jeans for dress shirts and ties.

The buttoned-down attire is meant to strengthen the message these young men want to send to their younger, less studious schoolmates in this integrated Cleveland suburb. Look at us, they are saying: We are black, we are smart, and we are proud.

The Minority Achievement Committee, or MAC scholars program, is Shaker Heights' best-known antidote to the nagging academic achievement gap that separates black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian-American counterparts here and in schools nationwide. On average, they start school trailing behind white and Asian children and never catch up, lagging on national tests in every subject—sometimes by four grade levels.

About This Series
Part I "Unmet Promise: Raising Minority Achievement,"March 15, 2000: Despite decades of attention, gaps in the achievement of minority students remain one of the most pressing problems in education.
Part 2 "Lags in Minority Achievement Defy Traditional Explanations,"March 22, 2000: Why do the achievement gaps persist? Some blame it on teachers; others say too much TV. In a Korean-American community, parents take no chances when it comes to their children’s education.
Part 3"Minority Gaps Smaller in Some Pentagon Schools,"March 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.

A new sense of urgency about the problem is prompting educators and policymakers around the country to try a variety of tactics, some quite costly, to narrow the academic disparities dividing racial and ethnic groups. Class sizes are getting trimmed, teachers are receiving special training, and preschool programs for minority children are expanding.

Schools are opening access to high-level classes and cajoling more minority students into taking them. Districts are shopping for schoolwide-improvement models, and policymakers are raising the academic bar for students and teachers.

In Houston, educators even bargained with local real estate companies to align the terms of apartment leases to match the school year so that children's educations wouldn't be disrupted when families moved. But no one knows for sure which of those methods work best.

"Some strategies for investing resources in disadvantaged children are substantially more productive than others," writes L. Scott Miller in his 1995 book on the subject, The American Imperative."There is little evidence that any existing strategy can close more than a fraction of the overall achievement gap."

That, scholars and minority advocates say, is why solving the problem requires combining strategies and mobilizing resources at every location along the path to adulthood: homes, neighborhoods, college campuses, and, perhaps most important, K-12 schools.

"Just because schools didn't cause the problem doesn't mean they can't solve it," said Meredith Phillips, a co-editor of The Black-White Test-Score Gap, a 1998 book on the subject.

What's more, some advocates say, if public schools can't solve the problem in this era of increasing school choice, minority families may be increasingly inclined to look elsewhere.

Breaking Stereotypes

The achievement gap spans socioeconomic boundaries, cropping up in cities, in rural towns, and in well-to-do suburbs like Shaker Heights.

A 1996 study in this 5,600-student district found some troubling achievement disparities. While blacks constituted more than half the enrollment at Shaker Heights High at the time, they accounted for fewer than 10 percent of the top-achieving students, but 90 percent of those at the bottom.

"There shouldn't be an achievement gap," said Audie Simon, a senior in Shaker Heights High's MAC scholars program, created by students 10 years ago with strong support from the district. "Because there is, we've all got to put our heads together to make a change."

He and his fellow scholars are walking arguments against a peer culture that sometimes belittles academic success. Studies since the 1980s have identified a tendency among some African-American students to accuse high-achieving black students of "acting white"—especially if they also use standard English or associate with white classmates.

"A lot of black kids have in mind that we just got to go to school and get our C's and D's," said MAC scholar Jaronn Lawson. "If we could just break that perception, they'd see there is no such thing as 'acting white' or 'acting black.'"

To change those attitudes, the scholars work as nags and mentors to underachieving 9th and 10th grade African-American males. The younger students, known as "potential scholars," start out with less than a C average. If they can push their GPAs into the B-plus or A-minus range, they may become eligible to enter the elite ranks of the MAC scholars. A similar program began three years ago for girls.

"I see these people, they're making it. They're minorities, and their GPAs are high," said Justin Priest, a "potential scholar" who's in 10th grade. "I think I could just work hard and buckle down, and I could do the same as they are." Mr. Priest's GPA, in fact, inched up from 1.48 last year—roughly a D-plus—to 1.71, or a C-minus, the first semester of this school year.

Need for Research

Making it cool to be smart is a strategy that may be catching on nationwide. High schools in Detroit, Evanston, Ill., and other cities around the country all have student-grown clubs much like the MAC scholars. On the national level, the National Urban League two years ago created the Thurgood Marshall Achievers, an honor society for black students, male and female, in grades 3-11. The Lake Success, N.Y.-based Institute for Student Achievement is a growing nonprofit organization that brings groups of professional educators into schools to augment existing services. One of the group's strengths is that it envelopes at-risk students in a network of support that focuses on academic and personal improvement.

"The program takes you out of the mainstream and helps you concentrate," said Kimberly Ferguson, a 24-year-old graduate student at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va. As a high school student in New York City, she was part of the institute's program. "We had all the same goals," she recalled. "We sat down together, and we developed study habits."

But solid research on programs that try to point disadvantaged students toward college is lacking, said Patricia Gándara, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. She found, however, that the most successful programs provide careful monitoring and guidance and target a particular racial or ethnic group.

Ultimately, all such programs have to encourage more minority students to take the tougher academic courses in which they are badly underrepresented now. Studies show that the biggest predictor of whether young people will go on to earn bachelor's degrees is the academic rigor of their high school coursework.

Some urban schools, though, do not offer a full menu of Advanced Placement classes and other challenging courses. And the general instruction those schools provide can be thin gruel compared with the meatier academic fare at well-off schools.

To force schools to provide better-quality instruction for all, Texas in 1994 began a statewide accountability system that requires schools to go beyond raising students' overall average scores on state exams. Texas schools have to show separately that the average scores of their white, Hispanic, and African-American students are all increasing. If not, schools face the threat of a state takeover.

As a result, the percentages of black and Hispanic students passing the state exams grew by 31 percent and 29 percent, respectively, between 1994 and 1999. The passing rate for white students, in comparison, rose by a little over 18 percent. Some school systems, such as the Aldine Independent School District, are close to eliminating the gaps in some schools.

The Texas approach is one of the most widely cited in the country for addressing lingering problems with minority achievement. But that approach, which also requires students to pass a high school exit test to graduate, is not without its detractors. The graduation test was unsuccessfully challenged in federal court by Hispanic advocacy groups and Hispanic students who had been denied diplomas. They contended that the test violated the constitutional and civil rights of non-Asian minorities because the percentages of those students passing the tests were still disproportionately low.

Texas' experience and that of other states, such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, suggests that raising standards with high-stakes tests presents a trade-off in the campaign to improve minority achievement. While test scores may rise, so, too, could the numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans who are "pushed out" of school.

If students are going to be punished for failing, minority advocates say, schools should first make sure that they provide equal educational opportunities for all.

"They have gone about the process of raising standards in an ass-backwards way," said Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League and an outspoken advocate of efforts to raise minority achievement. "Students need more time on task [and] better teaching," he added. "We're not talking about that and we are facing challenges."

Studies show that students in schools with high minority enrollments tend to have teachers who are less qualified than their counterparts elsewhere. ("Students in Dire Need of Good Teachers Often Get the Least Qualified or Less Experienced," March 22, 2000.)

Research showing that good teachers make lasting imprints on student achievement is prompting states and districts to raise requirements for new teachers and beef up professional development.

Class Size, School Size

Even well-trained teachers need manageable classes, however. When Tennessee undertook a statewide experiment in the 1980s to reduce class sizes in the early grades, researchers were pleasantly surprised to learn that while all students learned more in classes of 13 to 17 students, the benefits were greatest for minority students. After kindergarten, the gains black students made in smaller classes were typically twice as large as those for whites.

Similar results have emerged in Wisconsin, where a smaller experiment to limit class sizes in kindergarten through 3rd grade to 15 pupils has been under way for four years. During the 1997-98 school year, researchers found, the black-white test-score gap in program classrooms shrank by 19 percent. In regular-size classrooms, the gap grew by 58 percent.

"That's a good example of something that not only raises all kids' achievement, but also fuses the gap because it raises lower-performing kids' achievement more," said Ms. Phillips, an assistant professor of policy and sociology studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Other research has shown that smaller schools are also effective in raising the achievement of minority students. Some states and districts are turning to "whole school" programs with documented success at improving minority achievement. Two such programs—Success for All, which focuses on teaching reading to disadvantaged students, and the School Development Program, aimed at forging relationships between school staff members and parents and at promoting social as well as academic development—have won high marks for effectiveness from two different national panels.

But research on the vast majority of comprehensive models for school improvement is more mixed. Even less is known about the effectiveness of popular supplemental programs, such as after-school tutoring, Saturday schools, and summer enrichment programs.

"One thing we do know, however, is that many of the high-achieving students from all racial and ethnic groups are beneficiaries of extensive formal and informal supplementary educational opportunities over time," write the members of a task force organized by the College Board to look at minority achievement. Korean immigrant families in Los Angeles, for example, use such programs to create what some call "a parallel education system" for their children.

"None of us has achieved systemic success," said Thomas Fowler-Finn, the superintendent of the Fort Wayne, Ind., schools. He leads a network of 27 urban school systems formed last year to collaborate on eliminating academic disparities. "We've all achieved success in limited areas."

'It Begins With Data'

Fort Wayne's efforts reflect a trend by urban school systems to measure the success of reform efforts against the goal of narrowing achievement gaps.

The 30,000-student district began by taking a new look at race. "The goal had been to reach integration, but there were no goals to reach achievement," said Mr. Fowler-Finn. "We are now at the second goal, where the question of achievement must arise."

The district has shrunk the disparities in graduation and dropout rates in recent years, but white and black students remain separated by 30 or more percentage points on some exams.

In an effort to narrow those differences, the district has begun examining achievement-gap trends, as well as disparities in disciplinary action and differences by race on student surveys of school climate. An intense focus on early literacy, quarterly assessments, and a districtwide core curriculum also have helped push test scores of African-American students up.

Boston has also made closing the achievement gaps between white, black, and Hispanic students a districtwide goal.

In addition to setting high standards in every subject, the district now has five-year improvement goals for each of its 130 schools. The 64,000-student district also reviews achievement by race and gender each year and assigns intervention teams to review low-performing schools.

School leaders have been trained in teacher observation and in using test data to improve instruction. "It begins with data and a willingness to disaggregate data so you know what's happening with different groups of children," said Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant.

Money helps as well. The Boston system will spend $26.5 million by the end of this school year on summer school and other efforts to improve children's skills in the key transitional years of 2nd, 5th, and 8th grades.

"This is starting to take hold," Mr. Payzant said of the effort, which began in 1998. "I'm not naive, though," he added. "It doesn't mean that everyone who says every child can learn is acting on that belief."

The Rochester, N.Y., schools launched an attack on achievement gaps last fall by targeting money for smaller classes in grades K-6, after-school tutoring, intensified teacher recruitment, staff training, and expanded information centers for parents.

Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the 38,000-student system, also wants to change the way educators view their jobs to focus more on broader goals. "If employees are fixed on the notion of 90 percent job and 10 percent mission," he said, "the results will not push us to the level of performance kids deserve."

Involving Parents

Research shows that factors outside school, such as household income and parents' education, can predict school success, too. That is not to say, many experts believe, that schools can wash their hands of those influences.

Pedro Noguera, an education professor and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that educators and policymakers should get over the often-repeated idea that minority parents don't value educational performance. "Many schools assume that, and then they are off the hook," he said. "I've never heard a parent say, 'I don't want my child to get an education.'"

He argues that low-income parents, especially those from immigrant families, need information in a friendly, trusting atmosphere. Teachers can also help parents by providing clear instructions on what to do with their children, from practicing vocabulary lists to reading certain passages.

"The more specific [the information is], the more likely the parents will be able to provide it," Mr. Noguera added. "And if a child is behind, let parents know."

Perhaps most important, Mr. Noguera contends, is that parents must visit their children's schools. That, he explains, sends the message that what happens in school is important. He offers educators an easy way to get parents to show up: "Anytime you ask kids to perform, parents will come out. Use that as a hook."

Rosetta Moses-Hill, the director of the Allen County Local Education Fund in Indiana, which includes Fort Wayne, has another technique for bringing low-income parents to her agency's Reading Recovery training program. It pays them.

Not only does the nonprofit agency provide babysitting, a meal, and homework assistance for the children, but it also gives parents a certificate for $100 in groceries if they attend the three two-hour sessions.

Some 150 parents have finished the training since it began last fall. "Parents attend all sessions, and we pay dearly for those sessions," Ms. Hill said. "But when they come out, they can identify reading techniques that can help their kids become better readers."

For example, she said, parents are taught not to scold children for missing words or forgetting what they read, and to limit television time. "Well-intended parents can do the wrong thing and make them hate reading," Ms. Hill said.

Help From the States

Curbing television time is also the goal of several children's organizations, including the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va., and the Child Welfare League of America in Washington. Both organizations have endorsed National TV-Turnoff Week, April 24-30.

The annual event started in 1995 and is sponsored by TV-Free America, a Washington-based advocacy group. According to data compiled by the group, American 12- to 17-year-olds watch an average of 20 hours of television each week, roughly twice the level that some experts say can begin interfering with academic achievement. And black and Hispanic students, on average, watch even more television than their white and Asian-American counterparts.

Schools are also looking to their state capitals for support in closing gaps in achievement. And, with more attention being focused on the social costs and the persistence of those gaps, lawmakers are showing new willingness to talk about race and achievement.

State Sen. Jeanne Hopkins Lucas of North Carolina promised a vigorous discussion this year in her state on differing achievement levels between white and minority students. She and several other legislators recently met with top university officials on the issue.

"There will be a great deal of dialogue," the Democrat said in a recent interview. "We need to ask what universities need to do to better train our children."

With those talks, however, come inevitable debates over remedies and resources, especially for costly but promising ideas such as reducing class sizes, creating smaller schools, and expanding early-childhood programs.

In a recent study, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. cited the Carolina Abecedarian Project as one of the most promising preschool education models. But the program, which stresses language skills, costs $11,000 per child.

Jim Watts, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, predicts that state lawmakers in his region will tackle questions of minority achievement during this year's legislative sessions simply because the issue is getting easier to discuss. That is a good beginning, he said, even if the tough questions about money lie ahead.

"I think there were possibly well-founded fears a decade ago among black caucus members and legislators that putting this information on the table would reinforce age-old stereotypes about black children and learning," Mr. Watts said. "But this is an era of raised expectations."

Vol. 19, Issue 30, Pages 1, 14-16

Published in Print: April 5, 2000, as Lifting Minority Achievement: Complex Answers
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