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Black and failing
We have an opportunity to close the educational-achievement gap that hinders African-Americans from finding true equality. Do we have the will to do it?
BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN


What the racial gap isnít

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS, professor of social policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and co-editor with Meredith Phillips of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap, has seen a long line of theories ó including some of his own ó collapse under scrutiny since he first started studying the racial gap in the 1960s. The first to fall was the one implicit in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. "It became pretty clear pretty quickly that eliminating segregation didnít eliminate the test-score gap," Jencks says.

Many of the discredited theories have survived, though, for want of a solid alternative. "We had no explanation of our own, and you canít lick a dumb theory with no theory," Jencks says.

But in the last several years, a string of studies has helped to change that, including one being published in April by Roland Fryer, who now teaches at Harvard University, and his former University of Chicago colleague Steven Levitt.

Their study found that black children and white children with the same general characteristics (socioeconomic measures, age, parentsí educational achievement) start kindergarten on an equal academic footing. By the end of the first grade, however, black students fall three months behind ó that is, within the first two years of schooling.

This and other studies place the problem squarely with the schools. Perhaps that will help dispel some of the following myths about the racial gap in educational performance:

Poverty. Research has never supported the claim that the race gap is primarily a matter of socioeconomics. "I donít think that anybody who looked at the data thought that ó ever," says Jencks.

Socioeconomic factors do correlate to academic achievement, and black children are disproportionately poor. But this accounts for about a third of the racial gap ó at most.

"Weíd rather it was a poverty issue," says Jencks, "because we know how to write checks." But it isnít.

Family culture. Many argue that African-American families are culturally less inclined, or less able, than white families to cultivate an education-driven home culture for their children. Itís true that black children are slightly less likely, prior to entering kindergarten, to be regularly read to or taken to a library. But this gap has been closing significantly in the last 10 years, with no corresponding narrowing of the achievement gap. In fact, black pre-kindergarteners are now more likely than their white peers to be taught letters, words, or numbers in their homes three times a week.

Black and white students spend a roughly equal amount of time on homework, and have roughly equal levels of absenteeism from school. If anything, black parents help their children with homework, and discuss national news with them, more often than white parents.

Single parenting. Conservatives are also adamant about another supposed cultural difficulty ó single parenting. But the facts donít support the theory. The motherís level of education matters, but after controlling for that factor, Jencks and Phillips found that marital status had almost no effect on childrenís test scores.

Test bias. This common explanation for the gap cannot be dismissed out of hand, but it also cannot account for most of the gap. Cultural bias in testing is a real phenomenon; IQ tests of the early-20th century are now seen as suffering from this bias. But today, both the methodology and specific questions in standardized tests have been questioned, including in a recent article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. (The Educational Testing Service, in Princeton, New Jersey, which administers the SAT, tracks racial disparities on answers to individual questions but does not make those data public.) Now, most academics agree that test bias accounts for only a tiny portion of the current gap, thanks to modern techniques for removing bias.

Genetic inferiority. Although almost nobody professes this theory aloud anymore, it would be naive to assume it isnít lurking in the backs of many minds. As recently as 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggested it in their book The Bell Curve.

Unsurprisingly, the data confirm that innate ability is not an issue. "There ainít nothing wrong with these kids," says Jeff Howard, founder of the Efficacy Institute, an educational-consulting firm based in Lexington. "In the hands of adults who know what theyíre doing, they can quickly become proficient."

ó DSB

AS BOSTON CITY Council president Michael Flaherty is quickly discovering, race ultimately infiltrates any discussion of public education in Boston. Flaherty, who favors an eventual return to neighborhood schools in place of desegregation-related busing arrangements, has found himself besieged by opponents, including District Seven councilor Chuck Turner, who say that the change will resegregate the cityís schools ó and doom black students to the worst facilities (see "Bus Stop," News and Features, February 13).

That said, itís inconceivable to nearly everyone on all sides of the school-reassignment debate that the racial inequities that once existed in Boston public schools will return. But a huge problem in this regard already exists, and it is rarely discussed: the enormous racial academic-achievement gap in schools across the state. It exists in Boston, where minority students make up 85 percent of the population. Itís in Springfield, which evenly distributes its minority population among the schools. Itís in small towns like Greenfield that enroll few black students. And itís in suburbs like Needham and Belmont that enroll black students from Boston through the METCO program.

How large is the gap? Statewide, African-American students score an average of 21 percent lower than white students on the English Language Arts (ELA) portion of MCAS, and 34 percent lower on the math test. That should surprise nobody ó the racial achievement gap has been constant in every state for as long as records have been kept. Education professionals have always known about it, although they have long argued over the cause. Over the past few decades, experts have blamed the disparity in test results on socioeconomics, culture, and even genetics (see "What the Racial Gap Isnít," page 22). But none of these theories ó which amount to mythology ó fully explains or solves the problem.

Many of the myths have been allowed to stand, because the US Department of Education has funded few in-depth studies of the issue, and for years it was considered too politically volatile for many academics to approach. But recent university research has chipped away at the issue. And now, a groundbreaking study slated for release this April, co-written by Roland Fryer of Harvard Universityís John F. Kennedy School of Government and the University of Chicagoís Steven Levitt, makes clear that our schools, from the very start, are failing to teach our black children as well as they do our white children. In the crucial early years of education, it is the school experience itself that is putting black children behind. "[The findings] are a big deal, because it tells you this is it, weíve got a narrative," says Christopher Jencks, co-editor of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap.

In addition to the new research, something else is raising awareness of the issue, particularly since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2003: standardized testing. While such testing has been around for decades, under No Child Left Behind each school, district, and state receives a "report card" of test-score progress broken down by race. Love it or hate it, testing is shining a spotlight on the gap at every level.

All this new information has led Jencks and other experts to identify two major contributors to the racial achievement gap. First, predominantly black schools are underfunded for their needs, in large part because they have greater costs for health care, counseling, and special education. Funding these schools at the same per-pupil rate as predominately white schools turns out to be like providing the same per diem allowance to travel to New York as to Topeka.

Second, in the classrooms, teachers of all races are failing to recognize their own biases ó subtle prejudices that can lead them to expect less from black students. They also misunderstand how black studentsí needs differ from white studentsí ó for instance, how fear of stereotyping holds them back. Together, these oversights lead to very different test results for students of different races within the same classroom.

Both problems are stubborn, but they can be overcome. The biggest challenge, perhaps, and certainly the most important, is that they must be addressed in the earliest grades. A staggering 66 percent of Massachusettsís black students read below proficiency level by the third grade, compared with just 30 percent of white students. It would be much easier, everyone agrees, to keep these students from getting behind in the first place than to try to play catch-up at that point.

A GROUP OF 19 teachers in their first year with Needham Public Schools gathered on a recent afternoon for a mandatory training session. They watched as George Johnson, Needham School Districtís director of student development and program evaluation, presented the results of a study of Needhamís black students ó about half of them METCO pupils. The gap in the test scores didnít affect the teachers as much as when Johnson played a tape of African-American students talking about their teachers:

"Teachers donít understand us," one voice says. "They think we are out of control, and theyíre scared of us."

"I didnít hear from anyone until I failed," says another. "It was too late then."

"Teachers treat us like weíre retarded," says another.

"School feels like something thatís done to them," Johnson told the teachers. "Itís very easy to say we believe that all children can learn, but do we really believe that? It is not the message the kids are getting from us."

It is very difficult for teachers to accept that they might personally be failing their students, but thatís exactly the message that Johnson and many other administrators are trying to get across. Teachers ó including black teachers ó have lesser expectations for African-American students than for white students, according to several studies conducted in the 1980s and í90s. They also tend to be unaware of how much black students are impeded by their own anxieties about what others think of them ó a phenomenon called "stereotype vulnerability."

This presentation is only the beginning. The teachers will all be encouraged to take a course on "anti-racist teaching" from Empowering Multicultural Initiatives (EMI), an education collaborative based in Lincoln. The 36-hour course, taken by many MetroWest teachers with METCO students, forces teachers to confront their own prejudices, the realities of white privilege, and the ways in which these unspoken biases affect the classroom experience for black children.

Itís not an easy lesson to learn. Just ask Brenda Maurao, a third-grade teacher at the Mary Lee Burbank Elementary School, in Belmont. Maurao took the EMI course three years ago, and says she was initially defensive about the instructorís insistence that she was prejudiced. "I left the first class on fire," Maurao recalls. "I came out of there saying, ĎI canít believe I have to go through this attack.í"

But Maurao came around, and has since taken the second-level EMI class. Sheís changed some of her teaching methods based on what she learned in both courses. For example, her classroom today is filled with multicultural books and signs that she says were not there before. She uses a "Hands Around the World" daily lesson planner, which on this particular day led the class to a discussion of cheeses around the world. Students are currently reading Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims to get the Native American perspective on Pilgrim life. Because the book uses the outdated term "Indian," the class had a discussion about why we now use "Native American," and how words that label people can be harmful.

Frankly, it feels like a lot of multiculturalism for a room with just one African-American student, but Maurao is a big believer since taking the EMI courses that this is all part of making the classroom a more comfortable place for that one student to learn in ó and that opening the minds of her white students is an equally important part of her task.

But more important are the instructional methods. "The second level is technique," says Beth Ackroyd, a second-grade teacher at Broadmeadow Elementary School, who has taken the EMI courses. "A lot of the things that you might do differently are very, very subtle."

For example, Maurao tries to make sure her African-American student, Amari, is not excluded when the children work in groups, either as a result of the other kidsí cliquishness or her own shyness. When Amari uses improper grammar or pronunciation, such as saying "ax" instead of "ask," Maurao has developed a way to teach her the correct usage without suggesting that her family or friends who might say "ax" in place of "ask" are wrong, by talking to Amari about the difference between formal speech and slang. Maurao also takes to heart research that shows that black students learn better through direct face-to-face instruction rather than in group collaboration, and tries to set up her classroom and lesson plans accordingly. Many of the techniques, say Maurao and Ackroyd, who have taken the EMI courses, are extensions of the type of "differentiated instruction" that help them better teach all their students.

EMI director Doug Weinstock says the courses ultimately bring about a self-awareness that can stop a teacher from acting on assumptions. For example, a 1995 study of racially diverse classrooms found that teachers tend to use techniques with black students that are meant to correct for poor learning habits: drill-and-repetition and basic-skills remediation, for example. But the exact opposite approach ó focusing on broader meaning, conceptual understanding, problem-solving, and context ó produces increased proficiency in both higher-order and basic-skill areas with those same students, the study found.

Unfortunately, many education boards and teachers unions insist on looking at the problem as one of class rather than one of race, so they are not pushing teachers to gain the self-awareness Weinstock is talking about. "I would define the achievement gap more broadly," says Beverly Miyares, a professional-development consultant for the Massachusetts Teachers Association union. "The work we do looks at it through the lens of poverty and the disadvantaged." Teaching colleges are also not taking the issue seriously, although there are some exceptions, like Lesley College and Boston College. "Nobodyís putting pressure on the teacher-training institutions to deal with race relations," says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. "People need workable tools for making a racially diverse classroom function."

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Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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