Like many other Americans, I began a racial reckoning of sorts this spring and summer as protests erupted nationwide over the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other unarmed Black citizens who came before and after them. In June, amid the soul searching, I read an article that brought my racial reconsiderations closer to home. Highlighting the role of the news media in perpetuating racial biases, the study found that viewers exposed to news clips about “achievement gaps” between Black and white students tended to underestimate the graduation rate of Black students later on.
As a white journalist who long covered education research and often wrote about test-score-based achievement gaps, I had to wonder: Was I part of the problem?
Over more than three decades as an education writer and editor, I wrote at least 250 articles that include the term “achievement gap.” Had my well-meaning efforts shed light on education disparities or deepened biases that people already harbored about the educational aspirations and intellectual abilities of African American children?
The article I read involved an experiment described in Education Week by my colleague Sarah D. Sparks. She wrote how researcher David M. Quinn and his colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Rossier College of Education had asked a demographically and politically representative group of Americans to watch one of three short videos. The first was a TV network news clip on test results in Minnesota that focused heavily on gaps between Black and white students.
The second clip, taken from a descriptive video on the Harlem Children’s Zone, portrayed Black students engaged in class and discussing their academic goals and what they like about school. The third, a lesson from the education platform Khan Academy, served as a control.
“After watching the videos, participants were told that ‘white students on average have a graduation rate of 86 percent’ and were asked to estimate the graduation rate of Black students,” Sparks wrote. The participants who watched the “achievement gap” video underestimated Black students’ graduation rates by 23 percentage points, and their level of implicit bias against Black people increased 30 percent from before watching the video.
The effect from just one viewing lasted two weeks. No change in bias was found for the people who watched either of the other videos.
Clearly, words—and likely images—had mattered in that experiment.
To find out how my own words might have mattered over the years, I recruited three Black education scholars—one established academic who had long studied the education of African American students and two new and emerging scholars—to review 10 pieces I wrote between 1997 and 2008. The veteran in the mix was John B. Diamond, the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Kemi Anike Oyewole, a third-year doctoral student in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, and Brittany Fox-Williams, an assistant professor of sociology at City University of New York, provided the contemporary takes.
The pieces were selected for their focus on exploring reasons why Black and Latino students lagged behind white and Asian students on tests, college-going, and other measures of education success.
Here’s what the reviewers noticed:
Too much focus on students, families, and communities versus systemic problems. All three scholars said the articles, primarily those written from 1997 to 2000, dwelled on the roles of students, their families, their peers, and communities in contributing to Black students’ comparatively lower achievement levels and paid less attention to how teachers, schools, broader institutions in society, and inequities in housing and income might have limited Black students’ opportunities to succeed. Did teachers’ unconscious biases deter Black students from advanced academic classes, for example? Did privileged parents “hoard” educational opportunities for their children? These articles did not say.
“There’s just a lot more focus on individual factors, what is the student doing, what is the parent doing—a sort of Horatio Alger pulling-yourself-up-by-the bootstrap thing,” noted Oyewole, who was in 1st grade when the first article was published. That emphasis on individual responsibility is clearest in a 1997 package of stories on the then-popular “acting white” idea to explain Black-white differences in educational outcomes. The theory suggested that Black students were discouraged from attaining educational excellence by peers who equated academic achievement to “acting white.” The article and its four sidebars profiled four high-achieving Black teenagers from Richmond, Va., who “broke that mold” and talked about their own paths to academic success, their interactions with peers around schooling, and their experiences at a selective public school set up specifically for low-income, high-achieving students. Some of the profiles descend into racial tropes—an angry teenage girl who gets into fights, the church-going boy who avoids neighborhood kids congregating on the corner, and a boy who is called “white” by his Black peers on the school bus for his manner of speech.
Even now, scholars are debating whether the term 'achievement gap' harms or helps racial progress."
Studies since then have debunked the “acting white” theory, the reviewers said. “In terms of peers disparaging school achievement, that was a cross-racial phenomenon,” Diamond noted. “It wasn’t necessarily about Black students at all.” My articles never circled back to set the record straight.
When disputed theories about Black academic achievement are left to ferment in the public space, they reinforce long-held negative biases about Black people’s intelligence or educational aspirations, Diamond said. While a single article or paper or book cannot reverse hundreds of years of racial ideology, Diamond said, “I do think the repetition of peer culture can contribute to that louder, broader chorus, and that can have negative implications.”
Racism is not called out. In my sample of articles, the idea that racism limits Black students’ opportunities does not emerge until 2007 and 2008. It appears in stories about “stereotype threat,” the theory that students will become anxious and underperform when they perceive a risk that they will conform to stereotypes about their social group. Black college students asked to fill in their racial category before taking a test, for instance, tend to score lower than peers taking tests where racial identity never comes up. Even in those articles, though, I don’t use the word “racism.”
Same old voices. While 32 scholars are named in the 10 articles I shared, they came from just 15 institutions. Stanford University, Harvard University, New York University, and Johns Hopkins University predominate. And Oyewole and Fox-Williams, who both attended historically Black colleges and universities as undergraduates, noted no experts from HBCUs in the bunch.
Understanding is evolving. My articles eventually progressed from pinning the blame for lagging test scores on individual students and their communities to exploring the broader dynamics within and outside of schools. That evolution mirrored the academic thinking in the field over the same period, the reviewers said.
Even now, scholars are debating whether the term “achievement gap” harms or helps racial progress. On one side of the debate, Ibram X. Kendi, the author of the best-selling books, How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped From the Beginning, argues that ideas about “achievement gaps” are racist because they set up a hierarchy with white and Asian racial groups at the top and Blacks and Latinos at the bottom, thus reinforcing old, discarded ideas about racial superiority.
He favors measuring students’ educational potential in new ways—by their desire to know, for example, or how knowledgeable they are about their own environment or the vocabulary of their daily lives. Other scholars would recast the gap framework as an “opportunity gap” or an “education debt.” Gloria Ladson-Billings, the former University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who coined the latter term, compares it to the national budget debt, a product of centuries of accumulated historical, economic, and sociopolitical deficits loaded on the backs of Black students.
Regardless of the term, Fox-Williams said, the important thing is to “understand the relationship between achievement and opportunity.” If students aren’t performing well, it may be because they’ve not been given the same opportunities, and not that they don’t want to succeed educationally. Back in the 1990s, very few researchers had thought to study the effects of terms like “achievement gap” on people’s perceptions about race. Neither did media outlets. News organizations only recently began hiring consultants to help them analyze how Black and brown people are depicted in their own stories and images—and how frequently. Even more recently, the profession began to re-examine what it means to be neutral in reporting the news and whether reporters should call out what they see as wrong.
Did I buy into the explanations I was describing early on in those articles? I must have, and that disturbs me. But, as my reviewers pointed out, my understanding of educational disparities evolved over time and became broader and more complex. But the exercise of looking back at my work through more critical eyes did heighten my sensitivity to the ghosts of out-of-date ideas and biases that might lurk in the cobwebs of my brain.
Would I have arrived at a deeper understanding of race-related educational inequities sooner if I had talked with a wider circle of experts, students, and educators from the beginning? Probably. And that may be the most valuable lesson to come out of my modest experiment: Talk to everyone. Tap into a diverse and wide range of voices. Don’t over-rely on the biggest names from top-tier universities or the experts most likely to respond to phone calls or emails.
It’s a good reminder for any journalist, regardless of the topic they cover.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Am I Part of the Race Problem?