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The Conservative Curmudgeon
December 29, 2009

Complex Factors, Not Race, Account for Achievement Gap in Schools
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — The disturbing gap in the achievement rates of students of different races is growing.

Black students in the twelfth grade score lower on reading tests than white students in the eighth grade. The same is true in math, history, and geography. Overall, more than 40 percent of black high school seniors test below the basic skill level in reading, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Nearly 70 percent of black seniors score below the basic level in math and nearly 80 percent in science. These rates are in stark contrast to the 75 percent of whites who score above the basic level in math and 63 percent above the level in the sciences.

This year, community groups in St. Louis and Portland issued reports decrying the racial gap in schools. After a recent state report on test scores in California schools, Jack O'Connell, the state’s superintendent of instruction, said the gap is "the biggest civil rights issue of this generation" — a popular phrase in educational circles.

In Alexandria, Virginia, white students represent 25 percent of the total enrollment yet are 58 percent of those labeled “gifted.” Hispanics and African Americans, 25 and 40 percent of the enrollment, respectively, account for about l0 and 20 percent of those in gifted classes. School Superintendent Morton Sherman is bringing attention to what he calls “equity issues” and seeking to expand minority enrollment in gifted programs. In 2006, Alexandria rolled out a nonverbal test to reach children who might encounter language barriers or other cultural biases. Governor Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia announced that the Virginia Education Department will examine the low enrollment of black and Hispanic students in gifted programs throughout the state.

All of this may miss the point of what is really going on. Patrick Welsh, who teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and writes on education for The Washington Post, declares, “Focusing on a ‘racial achievement gap’ is too simple; it’s a gap in familial support and involvement, too. Administrators focused solely on race are stigmatizing black students. At the same time, they are encouraging the easy excuse that the kids who are not excelling are victims, as well as the idea that once schools stop being racist and raise expectations, these low achievers will suddenly blossom.”

Last year, Welsh reports, “Two of the finest and most dedicated teachers at my school — one in science and one in math — tried to move students who were failing their classes into more appropriate prerequisite courses, because the kids had none of the background knowledge essential to mastering more advanced material. Both teachers were told by an administrator that the problem was not with the students but with their own low expectations.”

Glenn Hopkins, president of Alexandria’s Hopkins House, which provides pre-school and other services for low-income families, says, “The real problem is that school superintendents don't realize — or won’t admit — that the education gap is symptomatic of a social gap.” He says that student achievement is deeply affected by issues of family, income, and class. “Even with the best teachers in the world, they don’t have the power to solve the problems. They naively assume that if they throw in a little tutoring and mentoring and come up with some program they can claim as their own, the gap will close.”

Only 37 percent of black children live with a mother and father in two-parent families. Yvette Jackson, the chief executive of the National Urban Alliance, makes clear that many low-performing students are not going to be helped by programs designed to end the racial gap in performance. She calls these children “school-dependent learners” and notes, “These are students from low-income backgrounds who need school to give them the basic knowledge that other kids get from their families -- knowledge that schools expect students to have when they start classes.” To her, the gap everyone is talking about is not a question “of black and white but of the difference between children’s potential and their performance.”

In a moment of exasperation, Welsh asked this question of his virtually all-black class of twelfth graders who had performed very poorly on a test: “Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?” One student who seldom came to class responded: “It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study.” Another student challenged Welsh: “You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us?” When he did, not one hand went up. “He declares, “… these kids understood what I knew too well. The lack of a father in their lives had undermined their education.”

The racial gap is also to be found between black and white students from middle-class, often intact, families. Black researcher John Ogbu was invited by black parents in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to help them understand why their children, black students in the school district’s middle-class, integrated, suburban schools, still lagged behind white students on every measure of academic progress. Black students in Shaker Heights had a grade point average of 1.9 compared with 3.45 for white students.

Dr. Ogbu and a research team from the University of California at Berkeley spent nine months looking at test scores and interviewing parents, teachers, and students. One of Ogbu’s findings is that middle-class black parents spend less time than white parents helping their children with homework and staying in touch with teachers. By his measure, middle-class black parents put as little effort into tracking their children's schoolwork as do the poorest white parents. As a result, Ogbu found that from kindergarten to high school, black students put relatively little effort into their schoolwork.

Dr. Ogbu said that, “What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents; they don't know how their parents made it. They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models.... The parents work two, three jobs to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children.” In response, the National Urban League issued a statement charging Professor Ogbu with blaming “the victims of racism.”

In fact, the reasons for the gap in achievement rates for black students are far more complex than “racism” — and it is to those reasons that we should turn our attention.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation