Panel Outlines Strategy for Raising Minority Achievement

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Concerned by minority students’ perennially lagging academic achievement, a panel of 20 scholars released a report last week that outlines a comprehensive strategy that they say can bridge the learning gaps between black and Hispanic students and their higher-achieving white and Asian counterparts.

The report, “All Students Reaching the Top: Strategies for Closing Achievement Gaps,” marshals evidence from cognitive science, psychology, and education research to guide educators and policymakers working to raise minority students’ achievement.

“Demographic shifts in our nation’s population mandate that we attend specifically to these students’ achievement if we expect as a nation to maintain our standard of living, our level of prosperity, and our place in the global economy,” the National Study Group for the Affirmative Development of Academic Ability says in its report.

Though minority students made strides in improving academic achievement and college-going rates in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, learning gaps seemed to become chronic—and sometimes grew larger—in the 1990s. By 2000, black students were still less likely than whites, for example, to take challenging academic courses in high school, score high on college-entrance exams, or complete college.

Eliminating those gaps is a major goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which threatens sanctions for schools that continually fail to raise the achievement of all the ethnic and racial groups of students they enroll.

But the authors of the achievement-gap report say their strategy differs in its main emphasis from the test-centered approach the federal government is using.

They advocate a multi-pronged effort that calls for establishing more supplementary and after-school learning opportunities for minority children, developing teachers’ mastery of their subjects, building students’ trust in their schools and teachers, providing challenging academic work for students, and teaching in ways that build on what students already know.

“I don’t think testing is the place you begin,” said panel chairman Edmund W. Gordon. “You begin with these kinds of things in our report and, two, three, four, five years down the road you can expect to see results reflected in the tests.”

Mr. Gordon, a professor emeritus of psychology and education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professor emeritus of psychology from Yale University, led a similar panel whose 1999 report drew national attention to the problem.

‘Raise Eyebrows’

The new report was funded by Learning Point Associates, a Naperville, Ill., research group, Teachers College, and the New York City-based College Board.

The report calls on the nation’s educators to embrace a strategy of “affirmative development”—in other words, a deliberate attempt to build students’ intellectual capabilities.

Toward that end, the report draws heavily on recent findings in cognitive science. Those studies suggest, for example, that all children can learn at high levels when they can scaffold new knowledge onto what they already know, when conflicts between what they already know and new knowledge can be resolved, and when they are given opportunities to practice new skills and apply them in novel situations.

The report also puts a new emphasis on the need for schools to develop feelings of trust in students.

One way teachers can lose students’ trust, Mr. Gordon said, is by lowering academic standards for them. “It’s hard to trust someone that you begin to perceive is faking it for you,” he said.

From a policymaker’s perspective, many of the panel’s recommendations sound sensible, said Andrew J. Rotherham, the education policy director for the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank associated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

But he noted that the panel’s cognitive-science recommendations would “raise eyebrows.”

“I think this will be read by some as devaluing the importance of content, which has been a raging debate with No Child Left Behind,” he pointed out.

Vol. 24, Issue 06, Page 10

Published in Print: October 6, 2004, as Panel Outlines Strategy for Raising Minority Achievement
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