- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

When Kevin L. Martin was a young boy, his mother, a veteran District of Columbia public school teacher, marched down to his classroom and gave him a piece of her mind in front of his fellow students.
Now 30, the Maryland businessman says his friends still tease him about the public punishment that she used to let him know that he needed to buckle down and take his studies seriously.
Mr. Martin, a black conservative who served in the Navy and now runs a hazardous materials abatement company in Prince George's County, Md., says his mother's example of concern over his educational progress must be emulated if black parents are to close the widening achievement gap between black and white students."African Americans have become heavily dependent on the federal government in providing education for their children," says Mr. Martin, a member of the advisory council for Project 21, the National Leadership Network of Conservative African-Americans. "They are not getting involved in their children's education. That is why their children get the worst of everything."
Recent reports of scores on national achievement tests have painted a dismal picture for black children of all economic groups. In the past 12 years, their scores have fallen significantly behind their white counterparts, after decades of steady progress in the 1970s and 1980s.
Although black students have made some gains, they continue to score far lower than whites and some other minorities on the SAT, the ACT and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams which have been given since 1969 and chart the progress of students nationwide in core subjects.
The surprise has been that economically privileged black children who share the same advantages as their white peers also are doing poorly, according to a report from the Department of Education. It found that the gap is not only an urban problem but a looming suburban issue as well.
In 1971, for example, reading scores on national assessments for students of black parents who had gone beyond high school were 44 points lower than those of white students whose parents had similar education levels. By 1990, blacks had narrowed the reading gap to 27 points, but it fell to a 36-point difference by 1999.
Similar problems can also be charted locally.
In Prince George's County, one of the nation's richest predominantly black suburban areas, the combined average SAT score for black students was a dismal 845 this year, 30 points below the average score for Hispanic students and 227 points lower that the average score posted by whites.

The toughest question

Craig Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust in Washington, says determining why upper-income blacks score lower than others is the "toughest question" about the achievement gap.
"Nobody has an answer to that question," he says, noting that finding credible data on the problem is difficult.
One reason it may persist, he thinks, is because of what he describes as "residual racism," which still occurs at many schools.
"I think that some of it can be explained by the fact that when you look at other gaps, opportunity gaps, race still matters, even if you take poverty out of the picture," he says.
"In my own mind, I call it 'residual racism' that seems to affect people's expectation of these students [and causes people] to treat them as if they can't achieve as much."
Researchers at Education Trust have reviewed data showing that in one Southern California school district, high-performing African-American students were much less likely to be placed in high-track courses, than high-performing white students or Asian students, he says.

School system at fault

"We know that the school system itself accounts for at least part of it. You can't just write that off by blaming it on the students," he says.
School counselors also play a large role, Mr. Jerald adds.
"They are living with years and years worth of accrued ideas of what to expect from kids. What seems to be happening is [that] counselors advise African-American students to take lower level courses, even if they have performed better than most of their peers in the courses they are in."
Nationally, average combined math and verbal SAT scores for black students have risen from 790 in 1976 to 860 today. ACT scores from the same time frame have risen from 15.1 to 17.0 for black students with the national average ACT score now at 21.
Combined average SAT scores for white students this year hit 1058, up from 1034 in 1990.
Education researchers have touted the progress all students have made on standardized tests. But they fail to pinpoint why black children continue to fall further behind when more blacks than ever are financially secure and living in suburbs, more attention is being paid to standards, more money than ever is being spent on public education, and other minority group members, including Asians and Hispanics, have made impressive gains.
Howard Fuller, who heads the Center for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee's Marquette University, says that the reasons for the deficit are myriad and complicated. The issue, however, deserves immediate action, including research on possible options like charters, vouchers and other means for school choice.

Much said, little done

While much has been made of the gap, he says, very little has been done to adequately address it, particularly on the policy level.
"It's a priority to discuss it, but its not a priority to make the necessary changes to change it," he says of the prevailing climate for reform.
A school choice proponent who leads the recently organized Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Mr. Fuller says he is frustrated at what he views is a national complacency in finding solutions that can propel black students to excel.
"No one can be smug and say what we simply need is more money for the public system or we need to reduce class size. Those kinds of answers are not sufficient given the nature of the problem," he says, adding:
"There is a litany of possibilities to explain why this is occurring and what that means is that we should be open really to a radical change in how we have approached education.
"The problem is going to come [if the solution people reach] is to require more money as opposed to looking at every aspect of [the system] we've set up to educate children."

Concepts ignored

Mr. Jerald of Education Trust says the reason black achievement has stalled is that while those students mastered basic skills during an intensive effort during the 70s and 80s, in the past decade, they have failed to grasp higher concepts and learning that would help to further bridge the divide.
"We've reached this tacit agreement that the achievement gap is just sort of natural thing, but it's not," says Mr. Jerald, whose nonpartisan organization works to improve education for poor and minority students.
"We know that the achievement gap widened over the course of a student's progress through kindergarten to the 12th grade. It's not natural, it's the product of inadequate schooling for poor and minority kids."
Researchers have identified several factors for the growing divide, says Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.
One is a climate of lowered expectations.
"Black kids on average, especially in cities, are in schools that offer much less-demanding curricula and don't push the kids as fast. They don't force them to exercise reading, analytic and mathematics skills like schools in the suburbs and schools with larger numbers of whites," he says.
There is also what he calls "a real school effect."

Much asked, much achieved

"You can see when black kids get into Catholic schools and schools that are highly demanding, they generally do about as well as anybody else does," he says.
Studies of poor blacks who attend Catholic schools on scholarships have found that those children "usually end up with the same grades, test scores and scholarships," Mr. Hill adds. "A lot of it has to to with the intellectuality of the schools."
Mr. Martin of Project 21 says he thinks much of the blame for the failure of blacks to move ahead in school lies squarely on the shoulders of their parents, because too often, they expect schools to do the job of the family.
A few critics charge that standardized tests are racially biased, while others have argued that black children, many enrolled in ragtag inner-city schools, fall behind because of lack of access to adequate textbooks, qualified teachers and expensive test preparation that would help them master national assessments.
By way of explanation, some contend that many black students often are raised in single parent homes where poverty is high and being brainy is uncool.

Success in sports valued

But scholars also note that a number of middle- and upper-class black parents fail to tap into a culture embraced by some white families of similar means. That culture encourages excellence in math and science over success in football and basketball.
"In my experience, I've seen the effect that white parents are really pushing for their kids to achieve more, whereas the black parents aren't," observes Eugene Lathan, a black father and Project 21 member from Portland, Ore.
"I think that most black people get hung up on the attitude that if I'm pushing my child in academics, I'm white. I think that has very little to do with it," says Mr. Lathan, 44. "If you are going to put your kids first, what other people think about your kids and family should come last."
Many argue bright young black men and women fear they will be pushed out of the "in" crowd if they show that they are interested in doing well academically, says Mr. Lathan, a supporter of school vouchers who sends his 10-year-old son to private school.

It's hard to be an outsider

"For them, not to be in that crowd simply because they are achieving in school is hard."
Like Mr. Martin, Mr. Lathan thinks vouchers could help change those kinds of attitudes of less advantaged black children.
Despite recent reports that privileged black youths are underperforming, it's still presumed that in private schools where academic excellence is the norm, black children would not face the cultural stigma of achievement. Thus, they would do as well as other students.
A recent study led by researchers from Harvard University adds weight to his argument that blacks are helped most by the private-school scholarships that allow them to attend better schools.
That study by Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard, found that black children who accepted privately funded vouchers in New York City; Dayton, Ohio; and the District scored significantly higher on math and reading tests.
Nina Shokraii Rees, a senior education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington says one reason for the educational disparity among black and white children is the lack of accountability.
"The key reason is because most of our policies federal and state are still too focused on feeding inputs rather than demanding outcomes," she says.

Texas set goals

She and Mr. Jerald of Education Trust cite states like Texas that have set goals and held schools accountable for the progress of all pupils, income level and race notwithstanding.
"In states where the gap is narrowing [like Texas] the state offers its school districts vast fiscal and legal autonomy in exchange for boosting test scores for all children so the state has to disaggregate by race and socioeconomic background and monitor student progress very carefully," she says.
"Disaggregating" in this instance means to separate the scores of groups of students and review where they have declined and progressed.
And, says Miss Rees, "If you don't disaggregate and most states don't then there is no way to focus on the problem and find solutions early on, thus the results we see today."
Mr. Jerald says education reformers must study what has occurred in places that are closing the achievement gap and follow their lead. Texas, he adds, is a good case study, calling its progress with minority children "amazing."
"The state expects each school to meet achievement targets not only for average students but for each ethnic group in the school and for poor kids," he says. The state officially expects schools to teach all students at the same level and holds them accountable."

Gains on exams impressive

That has led to impressive gains, particularly on the NAEP exams, he says.
"If the nation's fourth-grade black students scored as well as Texas' fourth-grade black students, we'd close the achievement gap by a third right away," Mr. Jerald says.
Project 21's Mr. Martin says black leaders like Jesse Jackson and members of the congressional Black Caucus should be preaching personal responsibility and empowerment rather than a larger federal role in education. He thinks they have only fueled a mind-set that the government is responsible for saving black children.
Policy-makers, he adds, have not demanded accountability for federal programs like Title 1 that are designed to help poor children, but have failed to work, despite more and more spending.
"Until these so-called black leaders get out of that Democratic mind-set of treating African-American children as victims, and hold these parents as well as the schools accountable, African-Americans will continue to fail in education."

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