perspectives on America’s educational system, particularly
on the black-white test score gap changed dramatically on August
29, 2005. This was the day that Hurricane Katrina devastated
Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast. Before I witnessed
the horrors of this event, I had always considered myself to
be a very progressive teacher, educator, activist, and researcher
committed to the reformation of schools in order to provide equal
education opportunities for all students, but particularly low-income
and African-American students. However, as I watched the national
response to this disaster grow more shameful each day, I was
further convinced that the reformation of schools was not enough.
What I came to know is that if African-American students are
to succeed in schools, both schools and society have to be dramatically
transformed, not merely reformed.
did the worse natural disaster recorded in U.S. history change
how I think about schools and African-American school achievement?
Well unlike other natural disasters of the past, Katrina came
ashore and uncovered what many Americans preferred not to see – poverty,
racism, classism, arrogance of power, and decades of neglect.
Although the damage and destruction of this hurricane cut across
racial and economic lines, FEMA data and satellite maps confirmed
that poor African-American residents of New Orleans and their
children were disproportionately displaced and suffered the
greatest lost. Hence, Hurricane Katrina is a symbol of what
can happen when a nation systematically and unabashedly abandons
the most vulnerable.
do not want to be misunderstood on this point. Most Americans
as individuals or members of organized groups responded to
Hurricane Katrina with generous donations of money, service,
sympathy, and incalculable acts of kindness. As American citizens
and individuals, we should all be very proud of these efforts
to help those in need. However, there are financial, emotional,
and physical limitations to individuals and groups’ ability
to sustain altruism over time. I believe that the images of
desperate and abandoned people literally drowning under the
weight of poverty were too heavy a burden to bear for the average
person because watching and acknowledgement are ultimately
a responsibility to act.
others struggling with what was called, “compassion
fatigue”, blaming the displaced for their predicament,
reproaching them for their dire circumstances in which they found
themselves. Often the popular media exploited this perception
by portraying the poor as ignorant, lazy, welfare dependent people
who did not heed the want to evacuate or worse, looters and criminals
who took advantage of a disaster. Compassion fatigue and victim
blaming were predictable responses. Predictable responses, not
only to hurricanes, but to the entrenching problems of African-American
school failure. Again, because individuals’ hard work and
efforts can never be a substitution for focusing on identifying
the causes and the solutions to poverty and racism at the larger
societal level. Michael Eric Dyson accurately portrayed that “Episodes
of good will and compassion are no replacement for structural
change. Charity can never be a substitution for justice.” So
here we are, nearly eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina and
New Orleans’ children are still drowning in poor schools,
in crime, poor healthcare inadequate housing, hopelessness and
do we know about poverty? We know that structural changes are
required to decrease the poverty rate and increase African-American
achievement rate in schools. The U.S. Census Bureau reported
that the poverty rate rose last year when 1.1 million more individuals
were living in poverty than a year earlier. America’s poverty
rate is the highest among developed nations. The numbers are
equivalent to the population of Canada. Any documentation of
long-term and consistent attention to the issues of poverty are
absent from the record. Some progress was made during President
Johnson’s War on Poverty in the sixties. However, the War
on Poverty ended as a resounding defeat as politicians weighed
the white flag of surrender, signaling a retreat from the poor
and the defenseless. Perhaps the most painful lesson Katrina
taught us was how this country devalues children.
do we know about these children? Well according to the Children’s
Defense Fund, each day in America, over two thousand babies
are born in poverty in America each day. Three hundred sixty
seven babies are born to mothers who have received no or late
prenatal care. Seventeen hundred babies are born each day in
this country without health insurance.
do we then know about poverty and race? These data on poverty
cannot be disconnected from the issues of race and racism.
There is a strong relationship between the two. A recent Urban
Institute report documented that even when statistically controlling
for factors like differences in parents’ employment, family
structure, parents’ education, that African-American children
are still twice as likely to be poor than white children. In
an informative piece called “The Hidden Cost of Being African-American”,
Shapiro states that the average African-American family holds
ten cents of wealth for every dollar that Whites possess. Making
the distinction between wealth and income, Shapiro noted that
the income gap actually, that’s job salaries and wages.
Well the income gap actually narrowed in the 2000’s when
the average African-American family earned sixty-four cents for
every dollar earned by White families. But wealth is another
issue. The primary sources of wealth are home ownership, home
equity as well as stocks, bonds, and savings that are passed
on from one generation to the next. This wealth, as contrasted
to income, is called a transformative asset. So in 2005, seventy-five
percent of White households owned their homes compared to forty-six
percent for Black households and forty-eight percent for Hispanic
households. These discouraging race and poverty data are related
to larger and more systemic issues of school equality and I want
to use two examples to illustrate this point. One is segregation
and the other is the test-score gap.
do we know about school segregation? The Civil Rights Project
and the Education Testing Service provide some rather sobering
statistics on segregation. Segregation actually has been on
the rise in the last decade. Despite rapid increases in the
number of ethnically and culturally diverse students, Census
Bureau data indicate that the White population is declining
and the percent of ethnic groups is increasing. Currently,
forty percent of this nation’s schoolchildren come from
ethnically diverse backgrounds. And in some large, urban school
districts, more than half of the students are diverse. However,
this growing diversity does not foretell growing integration.
The average African-American child in this country attends
a school that is sixty-seven percent African-American and seventy-five
recent publication for the National Bureau of Economic Research
included statistical models for school and neighborhood segregation
and I find it interesting that they concluded that the Black-White
test score gap is related to neighborhood segregation and that “neighborhood
composition matters more than school composition.” Why?
Because so called integrated schools are often segregated schools
where students of color attend low-tract classes taught by inexperienced
teachers and where White students are over-represented in honors,
AP and college-prep courses.
Nevertheless, residential segregation supported by decades of
reverses of school busing cases, particularly in medium and urban
areas, has been on the rise. In 2000, the average White person
in this country lived in a neighborhood that was eighty-nine
percent White. The other contributing factor to school segregation
is an increase in private school enrollment by White students.
Studies found that White private school enrollment today is comparable
to the percentages reported in 1968.
do we know about the test score gap? The test core gap refers
to the difference between the scores of African-American and
Hispanic students as compared to their White and Asian counterparts.
This test score gap is revealed by the fact that White students
on the average will score twenty to thirty points higher than
their African-American and Hispanic peers. Seventeen-year old
African-American students by the way have skills in reading,
math, and science that are similar to those of a thirteen-year
old White student. The so-called new, revised SAT has produced
the same old score gaps. Black test takers ninety-three points
lower than Whites in critical reading. A hundred and seven points
lower in math. Ninety-one points lower in writing. Interesting,
the test-score gap exists even when researchers control for social
class. In other words, when middle and middle-upper income African-American
students are compared to their social class counterparts, the
gap persists. We know that low school achievement and dropping
out of school have major implications for the economic survivability
of this nation. The estimated economic cost of low achievement – well
a high school dropout earns two hundred sixty thousand dollars
less, over a lifetime, than a high school graduate. And hence,
pays less taxes and less Social Security. This economy loses
one hundred ninety two billion dollars with each cohort of eighteen
year olds who never complete high school.
are there strategies then that schools can adopt to address
this test-score gap? What can schools do? First, we need more
competent and caring teachers. Although psychological, economic,
and sociological perspectives do explain the underachievement
of African-American students, convincing data show that recruiting,
training, and retaining quality teachers for low-income students
of color are significant and likely solutions to the problem.
We know both instinctively and empirically that “what matters
most are competent, highly qualified, caring teachers in our
educators, researchers, and the general public agree that the
quality of a student’s teacher is the single, most
important variable in closing the achievement gap. Addressing
the teacher quality factor in low performing schools is even
more critical. A report in public school students’ access
to well-qualified teachers concluded, “If states hope to
close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students
and those from rich and poor families, they must first close
the gap in access to skilled teachers.” The data consisted
in convincing that not all students have so-called skilled teachers.
The reality is that the most effective teachers are found in
schools where they are needed the least. Students in predominantly
African-American, Hispanic high poverty and urban schools are
twice as likely as students in other schools to be taught by
the most inexperienced teachers.
documented that the solution to the problem is not merely about
recruiting, but it’s also a retention problem. High poverty schools who’ve
served culturally diverse students have difficulty keeping experienced
teachers. Half of the teachers leave urban schools within the
first three years of teaching. The cost of this teacher turnover,
2.6 billion dollars annually.
Lack of experience is not the only factor that contributes to
this test-score gap. Teachers in high poverty schools are also
likely to be uncertified and to teach subjects in which they
did not have even a college minor. In order to close achievement
gaps, students need high quality teachers throughout their schooling.
else can we do? We need pedagogical models to instruct African-American
students. This point focuses on pedagogy and answers on what
we teach and how we teach. Regarding mastery of the subject
matter content, closing the achievement gap requires that every
teacher have a thorough and deep understanding of the subjects
they teach. This deep understanding of the content knowledge
allows teacher to employ multiple representations of knowledge
that use students’ everyday lived experiences
to motivate and assist students in connecting new knowledge to
home, community, and global settings. Teachers have to revise
how they teach. Specifically, they need to acquire culturally
responsive pedagogical skills. These are skills that require
teachers to understand that students’ learning is influenced
by their social and cultural experiences and in order to maximize
student achievement, teachers must gain knowledge of the history
and cultures represented in their classrooms and infuse this
knowledge into everyday instructional practices.
argue that demographic changes in today’s schools demand
new ways of organizing and implementing instruction. Diverse
students bring a range of cultural and everyday lived experiences
that may be different from the teachers’ knowledge, beliefs,
and views and certainly they’re often different from the
dominant norms of the school. As a part of meaningful instruction
for diverse learners, educators must consider the language and
the textbooks used to represent concepts and ideas and must find
ways to better connect with the realities that students know
and live in order to help them to understand instruction.
need teachers who are well prepared, competent in their subject
matter. They are advocates for their students. They teach their
students about issues of social justice. They are change agents
and leaders in their schools and communities. They understand
how to involve their students’ parents. These teachers
are problem solvers who search for insight in how culture and
ethnicity influence teaching and learning. We need teachers to
include the history of diverse groups in their instruction no
matter what the content area they teach. We need teachers who
use culturally relevant and student generated images, examples,
metaphors. Teachers who understand students’ learning preferences
who share ownership of the lessons with their students and who
use a variety of informative and summative assessment tools.
Informed by their own teaching as well as standardized tests.
We need new models in teacher education. We are interested in
the transformation of structural systems of inequality. Too often,
we hesitate to share our beliefs and political stances for reasons
we all know. However, we need to do this more often. Our pre
and in-service teacher/student beliefs are likely to be replaced
with more positive ones unless they prove to be unsatisfactory.
And they are not likely to prove unsatisfactory unless they are
I think all of these strategies I just mentioned deserve our
attention and commitment. However, I am arguing here that implementing
any school intervention without due attention to changing more
systemic issues of structural inequality will have limited effect.
There are achievement gap issues that schools cannot solve alone.
the first item on the agenda is to employ a paradigm shift
in the education profession. A wider lens that expands our
current narrow view. Understandably, many educators choose
to zoom in on individual students or individual classrooms,
cropping out the broader context or the backgrounds of the
subject of focus. There is a story about teachers that I think
captures this phenomenon. Anthropologist Lauren Isly calls
this story “The Starfish
Once upon a time there was a famous writer who walked the beach
each day before he began his work. One day as he was walking
along the shore, he saw a young boy picking up something and
very gently throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer, he
called out, ”Good Morning boy. What are you doing?” The
boy replied, ‘Throwing starfish in the ocean.” The
writer responded, “Why are you throwing starfish in the
ocean?” The boy said, “Well, the sun is up, the tide
is going out and if I don’t throw them in, well, they’ll
die.” “But young man, ”said the writer. “Don’t
you realize that there are miles and miles of beaches with starfish
all along them. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The
young man listened politely then bent down and picked up another
starfish. He threw it in the sea past breaking waves and said, “It
made a difference for that one!”
This story ends up that teachers are like the boy in the story.
Starfish throwers making a difference, one child at a time. This
inspirational story is one that teachers tell all the time about
making a difference one child at a the time I think has some
am not convinced that the boy’s plan to save starfish
is the best strategy to employ. I admire the boy’s hard
work, his concern, and his commitment. However, the man and the
boy should find a space and the time to find out well why are
so many starfish are showing. Why are so many dying and how might
more be saved? The solutions require the sustained efforts and
expertise of an entire community. Climatologists, ecologists,
marine biologists, environmentalists, community organizers, educators,
and yes, ordinary citizens.
are fundamental problems when educators just think of themselves
as mainly starfish throwers. What happens to the other students
in a teacher’s class while the starfish thrower
is saving the one student who needs help? How does a teacher
decide who should be the focus of her attention when so many
students need help? What happens when the child rescued in the
third grade ends up in the classroom with a non-starfish thrower
teacher in the fourth grade? How many starfish throwers are needed
to make a lasting and significant difference in society?
I think part of the paradigm shift in thinking about the achievement
gap is to have educators understand that politics is really not
a dirty word. We have to understand that our work in schools
is as much about politics as it is pedagogy. The point is that
political influences have a great deal to do with the outcomes
of our work and we cannot make long-term differences by just
saving one starfish at a time. I believe that we cannot move
the equity agenda forward and cater to our schooling until we
address the primary questions. Who makes the critical decisions
about education? Who controls the curriculum, the assessment,
the policies, and the money?
conclusion, the Educational Testing Service published the result
of a review of thousands of pieces of empirical research in
order to determine what we know about achieving equality education
for all children. They identified correlus of achievement that
they called “unambiguous”.
Students, more particularly low-income students of color need
well-prepared, competent and qualified teachers. Students need
experienced teachers who remain at the school and come to work
regularly. Students need a challenging academic curriculum.
Low-income, ethnic diverse, and limited English-speaking students
need adequately funded schools with small classes. Schools
must eliminate the digital divide. Schools have to be safe-havens
free of disruption, violence, and fear.
ETS continues with its recommendations by underscoring schools
cannot close the achievement gap simply by concentrating on school
variables. Parents need assistance and support in helping their
children. High student mobility needs to be decreased and affordable
housing increased. Pregnant women need high quality prenatal
care. Children need regular pediatric care. No child should ever
come to school or leave school hungry. Starting at infancy, children
should be exposed to books. We desperately need more summer,
after-school and parenting programs. And lastly, the number of
single-parent homes in this country must be decreased.
We cannot close the achievement gap if we cannot close these
other gaps. We have to close the teacher quality gap, the challenging
curriculum gap, the school-funding gap. We have to close the
digital divide gap. The wealth and income gap. Parenting skills
gap. Employment opportunity gap. We have to close the affordable
housing gap, healthcare gap, nutrition gap, integration gap,
and quality childcare gap. We must act, not by saving one African-American
child at a time, but by working on the institutionalization of
structures and policies that protect, educate, and nurture all
What do we know and what can we do? I think it is obvious that
we already have the knowledge, skills, and the technology to
effectively educate African-American students in this country.
What we lack? We lack visionary leaders and ordinary citizens
who have both conscience and courage. Ron Edmonds, the trailblazer
of the school reform movement noted thirty plus years ago that
we already know all we need to know to provide a quality education
for all children. He said the critical question to be raised
is how do we feel about the fact that we have not yet done it?
Thank you very much.