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Proviso Probe

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

ETHNICITY, the “achievement gap” in schools

The “achievement gap” is the label given when minority students score lower than “White” students on standardized testing.

This issue gets blamed on schools, in a way that is sometimes fair and reasonable and sometimes not.

If you buy the Liberal definition of “racism” aka "institutional racism", it’s a belief system that permeates society and affects us all. It’s in our body language, our news and our movies. The message that racism causes Blacks to internalize is partially that Black students will perform poorly in academic settings.

So, it seems somewhat unfair to blame schools for being the place in society where we see the manifestation of racism since Black students are internalizing messages about Black identity from many sources besides schools.

However, Oliver Pergams, PhD, (see Wedneday Journal) makes a strong case that some schools are worse than others. Pergams, a research scientist, crunched the numbers for Oak Park elementary schools and showed that one school had a much larger “achievement gap” than the other seven K-5 schools. Since he children attended the school he had persuasive anecdotes about some of the teachers engaging in racist behavior, mostly assuming Black students couldn’t read.

These problems need to be promptly identified and addressed. And I’m not sure how to do it. How do you work with teachers on racial attitudes without making them paranoid about saying anything offensive? Surely the resentment will come out in their body language and code words.

I do have a point about the concept of “achievement gap”. It’s bad politics. If Blacks, Liberals and educators insist on defining the problem as inequality between Black and “White” students then “White” voters will not support solving the problem.

I once read a joke about Asian politics. For background Burma is a backwater with a totalitarian government. Singapore became an affluent cosmopolitan city after being expelled from Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore during the first few decades of economic growth. General Ne Win was the strongman ruling Burma (aka Myanmar) for decades.

Now the joke:

Lee Kuan Yew: In fifteen years I could have Burma looking like Singapore.
Ne Win: So what? In fifteen days I could have Singapore looking like Burma.

When the problem is defined as the differential between the achievement of Black and “White” students, lower middle income “Whites” get nervous. As a goal it’s easier to bring down the achievement of their children to be equal than it is to bring up the achievement of Black students.

And lower middle income “Whites” aren’t stupid. They know the children in affluent “White” communities aren’t going to be equalized with Blacks. People with money don’t get screwed like that.

Striving for equality is kinda goofy anyways. Say you’ve got two schools with 1000 “Whites” and 100 Blacks. Say 70% of “Whites” are meeting the standard and 50% of Blacks are meeting the standard. So 300 “Whites” and 50 Black students are not meeting standards. Let’s say you had two policy options.

Policy A would increase to 90% of “Whites” achieving standards and 70% of Blacks. It’s a significant improvement, but there’s still a 20% differential.

Policy B would increase “Whites” to 75% and Blacks to 65%. Performance has improved and the differential has decreased.

To which school would you rather send your children? The school that implemented Policy A or Policy B?

Focusing on the special issues facing Black students not meeting standards is the right thing to do. But it’s not the right thing to do because it furthers equality. It’s the right thing to do because we should work to meet the needs of all students, especially students “falling through the cracks” because they have gotten on the low achievement track.

Over the last two decades there has been rapid growth in the home schooling movement. Home schooling is a good fit for some families, but some families are taking the option because they have lost confidence in our public school system. If they believed public schools would do right by their children they would use public schools. Some of the energy going into home schooling comes out of parental involvement in the public schools. The parents that have the time and energy to home school are probably the parents that would have had the time and energy to put pressure on the public schools to perform.

Educators, Black, Liberal activists, et al should change their approach to education. Instead of selling the moral virtue of equality—cause lower middle income “Whites” know they aren’t going to be made equal with affluent “Whites”—the Educators, Blacks, Liberal activists, et al should establish the goal of providing a quality education to all. There’s going to be debate about what constitutes quality, but I suspect there actually is significant consensus on what constitutes a quality education.

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