Two books explore the achievement gap between white and minority students

Bridging the Achievement Gap
Edited by John E. Chubb and Tom Loveless
Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 236 pages.

Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students
By Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III
Beacon Press, Boston, 176 pages.

There was something almost surreal about the official reaction (expressions of relief) to and the press coverage (proclamations of triumph) of the news that 90 percent of the graduating high school class of 2003 statewide had gotten over the MCAS bar and would be eligible to receive their diplomas on schedule. Of course, that 90 percent pass rate was a good deal higher than many gloom-and-doomers had predicted it would be, and the failure rate of 10 percent was apparently low enough to be politically tolerable. (I don’t know what makes it acceptable that one out of every 10 products of Massachusetts schools will not be able to graduate because they were unable to demonstrate competency at the 10th-grade level in just two subjects, English and math, by their senior year, but I’ll leave that for another time.)

But this score of 90–an A-minus on any teacher’s grading curve–averaged out disturbing, but all too familiar, discrepancies in performance between white and minority students. Whereas pass rates approached (and in a few cases reached) 100 percent in comfortable, lily-white suburban schools, 25 percent of African-American seniors and 30 percent of Hispanic 12th-graders statewide still had not met the MCAS standard; failure rates in some urban high schools exceeded 40 percent. After 10 years of education reform aimed at inequities in resources and standards, there remains in Massachusetts a yawning achievement gap even at the level of minimum competency.

Still, the pressures of education reform, here and around the country, have also placed the achievement gap under the academic and policy spotlight like never before. Two new books, in particular, have gone beyond documenting the achievement gap and taken on the challenge of solving it.

In its very title, the collection of scholarly essays published by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy reflects this shift in attitude, from armchair to take-charge, on the part of education scholars and reformers. Bridging the Achievement Gap is a conscious follow-up to the landmark 1998 Brookings collection The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, and takes as its goal moving the achievement-gap discussion from analysis to action.

A conclusion of the earlier volume was that “far more is known about the nature of the achievement gap–its causes and its consequences–than about how to fix it,” write editors John E. Chubb, a founding partner of Edison Schools and a Brookings fellow, and Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center at Brookings, in their introduction. “The situation, however, may finally be changing…. Around the country a number of specific efforts are showing that the achievement gap can be bridged.” Bridging the Achievement Gap reports on these efforts, which Chubb and Loveless characterize as “disparate in approach and involving relatively few students,” but still “potentially replicable” and offering “lessons that might be learned and applied widely.”

The resulting collection is less a blueprint for overcoming educational disparities than a smorgasbord of options for bridging the achievement gap. Smaller classes, vouchers, high-stakes testing, particular school models, and federal action to reduce funding disparities are all endorsed, at least in part, as weapons in the war against educational inequality. Unfortunately, such policy ecumenism provides little guidance for decision makers in city, state, and federal governments who are now faced with tough choices about where to put resources that have turned suddenly scarce.

The 10 papers in this collection are also not light reading. Even by Brookings standards, the papers are dense, academic in tone and structure, and weighed down with methodological mechanics. Those readers whose eyes glaze over at the mention of standard deviation, least squares regression, or probit and logit models will have a hard time slogging through some of the chapters. It’s particularly unfortunate that the most data-heavy papers cover such vital topics as class-size reduction, tracking, and vouchers. It would be more helpful to the public debate if editors Chubb and Loveless presented the work of these authors in a more accessible, but still rigorous, format for lay readers–including officeholders whose exposure to such research usually comes preprocessed in a self-serving manner by advocates and opponents of various measures.

Besides looking at a scattershot of educational interventions, the chapters also vary in form, scope, and provenance. In contrast to the heavily quantitative nature of most of the essays, the chapter by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom (the latter a member of the Massachusetts state Board of Education, as well as a fellow of the Manhattan Institute) on “Schools That Work” draws sweeping conclusions from two schools and a single classroom. The schools are KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies in Houston and the South Bronx, middle schools–both are now charter schools, though the New York academy began as a district school–founded in part on principles developed in the Thernstroms’ chosen classroom, teacher Rafe Esquith’s fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. The Thernstroms argue that inner-city kids respond to the no-nonsense and no-frills creed shared by Esquith and KIPP: civility (“ŒBest behavior’ takes practice”), hard work (KIPP academies extend the school day to 5 p.m. and hold class Saturday mornings and three weeks in the summer; Esquith’s students also stay well past the school’s 2:48 p.m. dismissal, on a voluntary basis), and high standards (“No excuses” is one bulletin-board slogan shared by the three). The chapter could also serve as a powerful, if impressionistic, brief in support of a KIPP Academy in Boston, for which a charter-school application is pending.

Similarly, the chapter entitled “High Achievement in Mathematics,” by David Klein, a mathematics professor and consultant for the Los Angeles County education office, offers just a handful of examples to make a case for what it takes not only to teach math well but run an effective school. Klein lauds three high-performing elementary schools in the Los Angeles area, crediting their success to principals who hold high expectations for students and teachers alike and resist educational doctrines that Klein sees as neglecting core skills. In the latter, Klein lumps bilingual education, the whole-language approach to reading, and the “new new math,” which he criticizes for slighting computation. Thus Klein’s essay is more a salvo in the classroom culture wars–simmering across the country but always raging out of control in California–than a dispassionate analysis of mathematics education.

One intriguing thread: concentrating efforts and expenditures where the gap is greatest.
A particularly strange choice for this volume is an essay on the Success for All model of reading and whole-school reform. Now in use at 1,600 schools in 48 states, Success for All is a natural subject for examination, and the essay’s claim that the highly scripted program is having “a widespread and disproportionate impact on African American and Latino students” is buttressed with data from numerous evaluations. But the chapter is written by the program’s architects, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden, president of the Success for All Foundation. Surely Brookings could have found a scholar more disinterested than the founders to review the studies and render an unbiased judgment on whether success is truly being had by all.

One intriguing thread runs through several of Bridging the Gap‘s strongest chapters: concentrating efforts–and expenditures–where the achievement gap is greatest. Reviewing data from Project STAR, Tennessee’s statewide experiment in class size, Alan B. Krueger of Princeton University and Diane M. Whitmore of University of California­ Berkeley conclude that minority students (and white students who attend predominantly minority schools) gain the most from having smaller classes in the early grades, suggesting that “class-size reductions will have the biggest bang for the buck” in predominantly minority schools. Similarly, Alex Molnar and his University of Wisconsin colleagues report that when class sizes were reduced to 15 students in high-poverty schools–made possible by Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program, which funnels an extra $2,000 per student to these schools to shrink classes–lower-achieving black students gained more from the increased teacher attention than higher-achieving white students in the same classrooms, thereby shrinking the achievement gap.

Finally, Ann Flanagan and David Grissmer of the RAND Corp. reveal that, nationally, the racial achievement gap is compounded by a locational one. That is, white suburban students in the Northeast and Midwest have the highest test scores in the country (rural whites in these regions come in next), but black students in these regions have among the lowest. As a result, the greatest black-white test-score gaps are found in Connecticut and Minnesota, while the gap is smallest in West Virginia and Kentucky, states where white students perform poorly by national standards and blacks do only modestly worse. Of 28 states participating in the full battery of national NAEP tests (though only up to 1996, before the state’s education-reform efforts could be expected to have borne fruit), Massachusetts is fifth highest in white scores and third highest in black scores, but the discrepancy between these scores puts the Bay State in the middle–13th in overall–in achievement gap, with only marginally greater academic parity than Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas. Thus Flanagan and Grissmer suggest that federal education policies (and spending) ought to be concentrated in urban areas across the country, in addition to chronically underfunded and underperforming areas in the South and West.

Thus, in different ways, the Tennessee, Wisconsin, and RAND chapters suggest that the way to tackle the achievement gap is by giving disadvantaged minority children in urban areas a quality of education not only equal to but well beyond what is needed to educate middle-class white students in the suburbs to high levels. It’s a suggestion that’s probably too costly to contemplate in the current fiscal circumstances, but may one day be impossible to ignore.

Another collection of essays takes a different tack on the achievement gap. In Young, Gifted, and Black, three African-American education scholars tackle the conundrum from the point of view of understanding and promoting black achievement. Their stated goal for African-American students isn’t parity, but excellence.

This volume includes a short but illuminating essay by Stanford psychologist Claude Steele that carries forward his “stereotype threat” studies of the hazards that trip up high-achieving black students, which gained fame in the first Brookings collection and in a 1999 article in The Atlantic. Steele’s research is motivated by concern that “virtually all aspects of underperformance–lower standardized test scores, lower college grades, lower graduation rates–persist among students from the African-American middle class.” Here, he reiterates his findings that, among black undergraduates at elite universities, subtle messages that raise or ease unconscious fears that they are about to confirm society’s assumptions of black inferiority can affect performance on tests in dramatic ways.

What Steele adds in this essay is insight into the role of trust, or “identity safety,” as an antidote to stereotype threat. In a fascinating experiment involving a paper editing session, Steele found that top-performing black students reacted with insecurity and discouragement to a harsh critique of their work, even when preceded by a “cushioning statement” of praise, whereas white students took the criticism at face value, going back to their rewrite assignment with enthusiasm. Steele found that nagging fears that their work was getting trashed because they were black could be overcome by a simple message: “Tell students that you are using high standards (this signals that the criticism reflects standards rather than race), and that your reading of their essays leads you to believe that they can meet those standards (this signals that you do not view them stereotypically).” As Steele notes, “This shouldn’t be faked.” But neither should it be assumed that students of all races and ethnicities have faith in the standards they are being held to and in the good will of those who hold them to these standards. “High standards…should be an inherent part of teaching, and critical feedback should be given in the belief that the recipient can reach those standards,” writes Steele. “These things go without saying for many students. But they have to be made explicit for students under stereotype threat.”

Asa Hilliard III, a professor of education at Georgia State University, also contributes a rousing essay that declares the way to close the achievement gap is “no mystery.” The solution, he says simply, is “excellent teaching.” Rather than seek out elaborate economic, social, cultural, or psychological reasons for black underperformance, he says it would be better to study at the knee of the “gap closers,” educators who prove on a day-to-day basis that it’s possible to achieve the highest level of academic success with the most disadvantaged students. Hilliard provides examples of these gap-closing teachers and their methods, and he insists that their successes are not limited to those with superhuman talents.

“Ordinary teachers and ordinary principals with extraordinary commitment and energies can transform ordinary schools, and even failing schools, into islands of hope in a sea of despair,” Hilliard declares. Unfortunately, he is less clear about how to make every teacher and principal a gap-closer.

But it is a three-part essay by Wheelock College education professor Theresa Perry, entitled “Up From the Parched Earth: Toward a Theory of African-American Achievement,” that dominates the collection. For Perry, the first mystery to be solved is why, historically, blacks have been so committed to academic advancement when education carried with it no guarantee of reward; it could even, under slavery, be cause for punishment. She suggests that, from slavery through the Civil Rights era, the African-American community nurtured a philosophy of education that was not just utilitarian in nature, but inspirational: “You pursued learning because this is how you asserted yourself as a free person, how you claimed your humanity. You pursued learning so you could work for the racial uplift, for the liberation of your people. You pursued education so you could prepare yourself to lead your people.”

Through a series of “narratives” culled from the lives of African-American achievers through history –some famous, some obscure–Perry demonstrates how this philosophy became a defining feature of black culture, a part of the “social group identity” of African-Americans, through the end of legal segregation. It is in the post-Civil Rights era that perpetuating this pro-achievement mindset, which she calls “freedom for literacy, literacy for freedom,” becomes problematic.

Today, there is “the illusion of openness and opportunity,” she says, but black youth still are “battered at every turn by the ideology of African-American inferiority.” What’s worse, she says, is the elixir that inspired African-Americans to academic success has been diluted in the well of desegregated society, left to institutions that, in the guise of equal treatment for all, do little to promote achievement for black students. “Schools…are not intentionally organized to forge identities of African-American students as achievers…. [They] make few attempts to systematically organize occasions to create desire, to inspire hope, to develop and sustain effort optimism, or to intentionally…socialize students to the behaviors that are necessary for them to be achievers.”

The everyone-can-succeed ethos can account for black success.

So what kinds of schools would ensure African-American achievement? Her conclusions are surprisingly in sync with the likes of Klein and the Thernstroms, in the Brookings volume. “African-American students will achieve in school environments that have a leveling culture, a culture of achievement that extends to all members,…where the expectation that everyone achieve is explicit and is regularly communicated in public and group settings.” Though culturally sensitive classrooms do the job best, producing “exceptional academic results,” she says the everyone-can -succeed-and-will ethos is the main requirement, accounting for black success in such non-Afrocentric settings as Catholic schools and Department of Defense schools.

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And in what kinds of schools are black students doomed? Perry’s answer may make so-called progressive educators squirm with discomfort. “African-American students will have difficulty achieving in school communities, irrespective of class background and prior level of academic preparation, that are individualistic, committed to giving their students lots of degrees of freedom, and highly stratified and competitive and that make few attempts to build and ritualize a common, strong culture of achievement that extends to all students.” And in case anyone should miss her point, Perry drives it home: “Schools in this category include many of the highly ranked systems in small towns, progressive college towns, and suburban communities.”

It is a provocative–and tantalizing–ending to a long, at times ponderous, philosophical discourse. If only Perry had spent a bit less time “theorizing” African-American achievement and a bit more time exploring the implications of her theories for making schools more successful for their African-American and other minority students. Only by conquering the achievement gap will schools, and policy makers, be able to turn their attention, as Perry and her co-authors would like them to do, to excellence.