Student Achievement

No Racial Gap Seen In Students’ School Outlook

By Catherine Gewertz — November 20, 2002 5 min read
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African-American and Hispanic adolescents care about succeeding in school as much as their white and Asian peers, and work hard to do so, a new survey shows. The findings contradict the view that some groups of minority students are less academically driven than others.

The report, scheduled for release this week, examines racial patterns in the aspirations and motivations of middle and high school students, as well as their feelings toward teachers and the role that peer pressure plays in their academic aspirations. It also examines their schoolwork comprehension and homework habits.

The survey found little racial difference in students’ desire to excel in school. But African-American and Hispanic students reported that they understand their classroom work and complete homework less often than do their white or Asian peers. Black and Hispanic students also reported that teachers’ encouragement provides greater motivation to work hard than do teachers’ demands.

The results of the survey are available from the Minority Student Achievement Network.

By examining students’ perspectives, the study’s designers hope to elucidate some of the complex dynamics behind the dogged problem of lower achievement among Hispanic and African-American students, and develop strategies for closing that gap. Scholars believe that a variety of sociological and educational factors contribute to the phenomenon, which affects students of various income levels.

The findings were drawn from a survey of 40,000 middle and high school students, administered between November 2000 and January 2001, in 15 school districts that belong to the Minority Student Achievement Network. The network is a collaborative that is studying ways to address the achievement gap. (“Network of 14 Districts to Focus on Achievement Gap,” July 14, 1999.)

The study “challenges the preconception that there is anything fundamentally different in the motivational makeup of kids from different backgrounds,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who analyzed the data.

While the students in the study were from largely middle-class school districts, the white and Asian students still had more books and computers at home, better-educated parents, and were more likely to live with both parents than were their peers in other racial groups. The correlation between those factors and lagging academic skills suggests that students’ intellectual experiences and family resources, or lack thereof, are key contributors to the skills gap, Mr. Ferguson said.

Despite some scholars’ view that minority students can be reluctant to excel academically for fear of incurring fellow minority students’ disapproval, students of all racial groups surveyed said their friends think it’s important to study hard and get good grades.

Mr. Ferguson said those findings bolster a growing view that minority teenagers who criticize their academically successful peers for “acting white” are not actually deriding the scholastic success, but responding to their friends’ air of superiority, or to signs that they are distancing themselves from their own racial group.

Students of all racial groups showed similar desires to work hard in order to master academic material. But black and Hispanic students were more likely than white and Asian students to say they work hard because their teachers “encourage” them to do so, and less likely to say they work hard in response to a teacher’s “demands.”

Need for Training

Educators saw in those findings a crucial signal that they said should be translated into teacher training.

Allan Alson, the founder of the network and the superintendent of the 3,200-student Evanston (Ill.) Township High School District 202, said students whose parents and grandparents have not experienced academic success come to school wary of the institution, more prepared to fail than to soar.

“Kids come to us with different degrees of confidence, motivation, resilience, and engagement,” Mr. Alson said. “Training must sensitize adults to these, not to stereotype kids, but to pick up on the way kids present themselves and be responsive to that.”

Educators should pursue such goals “not [by] deviating from the curriculum or diminishing standards, but [by] building relationships with kids around the work they do in class,” he continued. “We as educators have to demonstrate to kids we will not give up on them.”

The findings suggest, Mr. Ferguson said, that while all students benefit from positive, encouraging relationships with their teachers, low achievers might benefit in particular. The survey’s results led him to begin researching how teachers can be trained to be strong in all three areas of what he calls the “instructional tripod": pedagogy, content, and relationship-building.

The survey showed that on homework, black, white, and Hispanic students reported spending similar amounts of time (averaging 1.6 to 1.7 hours a night), while Asian students studied more (2.2 hours per night). But more white and Asian students reported usually finishing their homework than did black and Hispanic students.

A racial gap showed up, also, in the proportion of schoolwork students reported comprehending. Forty-eight percent of blacks and 46 percent of Hispanics said they completely understood the teacher’s lesson less than half the time, compared with 32 percent of Asians and 27 percent of whites.

Jesse P. Martinez, a school board member in Fort Worth, Texas, who serves as the co-chairman of the Council of the Great City Schools’ task force on the achievement gap, said he was saddened but not surprised by the findings on gaps in skills and comprehension.

Too often, he said, teachers view minority students as hostile to learning or unable to learn, and don’t do what’s necessary to make sure they understand the work. Additionally, he said, too few minority parents raise their children to respect teachers, and students’ resulting disrespectful behavior affects teachers’ attitudes toward them.

Students who lack skills can sometimes adopt behaviors such as “acting tough” and cavalier about their studies to hide that deficit, Mr. Ferguson said, but teachers need to learn to see through that façade and realize that students care deeply about succeeding.

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as No Racial Gap Seen In Students’ School Outlook

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