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Jacqueline Jordan Irvine
Professor of Urban Education, Emory University
"The Black-White Test Score Gap: What We Know and What We Can Do"
March 8, 2007

My 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.

Why 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.

I 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.

Still 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 inexcusable poverty.

What 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.

What 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.

What 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.

What 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 percent poor.

A 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.

What 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.

Well, 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 nation’s classrooms.”

Most 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.

Richard Ingersas’ work 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.

What 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.

I 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.

We 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 challenged.

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.

So 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 Story”.
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 inherent limitations.

I 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.

There 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?

In 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 children.

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.


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