Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sobering report highlights need for a NEW conversation on the achievement gap

On Tuesday  November 9th, the Council of the Great City Schools released an alarming new report (Link: A Call for Change), on the academic achievement gap. The data is not entirely new to those who have been following issues surrounding the gap and the need for reforms, but the report does a masterful job of compiling the relevant statistics into a single document, amplifying them and making them increasingly difficult to ignore...

The report focuses on six areas of the lives of African American males. Highlights of the report's findings show:

  • In readiness to learn, black children were twice as likely to live in a household where no parent had fulltime or year round employment in 2008. And in 2007, one out of every three black children lived in poverty compared with one out of every 10 white children.
  • In black male achievement at the national level, first time analysis of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that on the 2009 fourth grade reading assessment only 12 percent of black male students nationally and 11 percent of those living in large central cities performed at or above proficient levels, compared with 38 percent of white males nationwide. In eighth grade, only 9 percent of black males across the country and 8 percent living in large cities performed at or above the proficient level in reading, compared with 33 percent of white males nationwide. Math results were similar in both grades. Moreover, the average African American fourth and eighth grade male who is not poor does no better in reading and math on NAEP than white males who are poor; and black males without disabilities do no better than white males with disabilities.
  • In black male achievement in selected big city school districts, 50 percent of fourth and eighth grade black males in most urban districts and nationwide scored below Basic levels.
  • In college and career preparedness, black males were nearly twice as likely to drop out of high school as white males. In 2008, 9 percent of black males dropped out of high school compared with 5 percent of white males. In addition, black male students nationally scored an average 104 points lower than white males on the SAT college entrance examination in reading. And black students generally were about one third as likely to meet ACT college readiness benchmarks as white students.
  • In school experience, black students were less likely to participate in academic clubs, more likely to be suspended from school, and more likely to be retained in grade than their white peers.
  • In postsecondary experience, the unemployment rate among black males ages 20 and over (17.3 percent) was twice as high as the unemployment rate among white males of the same age (8.6 percent) earlier this year. In 2008, black males ages 18 and over accounted for 5 percent of the college population, while black males accounted for 36 percent of the nation’s prison population.

But one of the thing I found most promising about the report, was its break from common wisdom when examining the root causes. Most discussions around the academic achievement gap end up ascribing the gap to poverty or issues related to poverty. And while there is certainly some correlation between household income and achievement, the idea that the correlation was the cause was always tenuous at best. There was always too much conflicting and contradictory information in the margins to accept this simple explanation.  This report examines that claim and refutes it plainly, detailing the fact that African American youth who are not in poverty score no better than their White counterparts who are.

I found this distinction to be promising because if we are going to eliminate the academic achievement gap we must first be willing to confront it openly and without flinching. Poverty is too convenient an excuse; a large, complex issue that is perhaps beyond our collective capacity to solve. If poverty is the culprit then the gap is the product of societal inequities, not a reflection of our failures; and we are not accountable. I believe that the academic achievement gap is the the complex result of shifts in values and expectations within the African American community (please read: The Crisis of Aspiration), which are exacerbated by poverty, which are further exacerbated by a legacy of low expectations, and even further exacerbated by subsequently formulaic approaches to pedagogy. And while each issue has a synergistic effect on  the others, they are entirely severable (please read: Mixing Metaphors)

Of course this is only my theory; one of perhaps a thousand that have been conceived. Solving the problem and ending the gap will require that we be willing to consider them all, and that we avoid the easy answers... I think this report is a good start... Now let's start talking

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