Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2002 / 28 Kislev 5763
Closing black-white test-score gaps
Studies about the state of education in America remind me of high school. That's a major reason why I hate reading studies about education in America.
Nevertheless one intriguing new study has caught my attention and won't let go. It tries to explain the gaping test score gaps between black, white, Asian and Latino students.
The puzzle is, why do white and Asian students tend to cluster on the high side of the gap and blacks and Latinos on the low side?
For years conventional wisdom has blamed the gap on poorly performing inner-city schools. But, not that schools are required to report their district test scores by race under federal education reforms, we see the racial test score gap repeating itself in prestigious suburban schools, too.
Is there something significantly different about the motivational makeup of children from different racial and cultural backgrounds?
Signithia Fordham, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester, advanced a much-discussed and argued "oppositional culture" theory in the 1980s that spotlighted black high school students who ridiculed academic success as "acting white."
Many pundits, especially black ones like me, viewed that with alarm. After all, I said, black people don't have to worry about white racists when we show such eagerness to do their work for them.
All of which brings me to the new nationwide study tested that caught my eye. Conducted by the Minority Students Achievement Network, based on Evanston, Ill., it found very little difference between the races in students' desire to excel in school.
However, black and Hispanic students also reported that they did not understand their work as often as white and Asian students did and they were less likely to have computers at home or other resources that bolster student achievement.
The study surveyed 40,000 middle and high school students in the network's 15 member middle-to-high-income school districts across the country. Larger districts include Evanston and Oak Park, Ill.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Amherst, Mass.; Montclair, N. J.; White Plains, N.Y., and Berkeley, Calif.
Almost half of the black and Hispanic students said they failed to understand their teacher's lessons most of the time, compared to 27 percent of whites and 32 percent of Asians.
And, despite the overall affluence of their districts, black and Hispanic students were more likely to live with one or neither parent and their parents were less likely to have college degrees.
They also reported fewer educational resources at home. Only 20 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of blacks said they had a computer at home, for example, compared to 57 percent of whites and 42 percent of Asian students.
Black and Hispanic students actually were more likely than white or Asian students to report that their friends think it is "very important" to study hard and get good grades. (Researchers asked about "friends" in order to avoid the pressure that students might feel to sound more pro-academics than they really were.)
But, alas, persuading them to do that hard study appears to be another matter. Asian students, for example, who scored higher than whites overall, also reported spending a half-hour to 45 minutes more time on their homework.
(SPECIAL ALERT TO MY TEEN-AGE SON: Please take note of that last statistic!)
Ronald F. Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who analyzed the research data, surmised that "acting white" might not be a criticism of academic achievement. Intead, he said, it may be a criticism of the "air of superiority" or distancing from one's racial group that some little geniuses take on.
He has a point. My dearly departed Uncle James, whose sons included a couple of terrific football players, used to pull my coat about lording my honor-roll grades over my lesser-achieving friends. "Don't just be proud of yourself," he admonished me. "Help some of these other boys to get ahead, too."
With that in mind, I appreciate the "reading buddy" programs some schools have in which high-achievers tutor younger and lower achievers.
I also applaud the teachers and administrators who are willing to take the time to make every child feel that they can learn.
Looking back on my own high school years with older eyes, I think kids really do want to feel proud of their schools' high achievers, just as they want to be proud of their schools. But more than anything, behind their cocky teen-age manner, they want to feel proud of themselves. Sports can do it for a while. Education can do it for a lifetime.
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