Spring 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Closing the Achievement Gap: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Erase
By Donna Y. Ford and Gilman W. Whiting

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
—George Santayana

It is widely recognized and quite unfortunate that the educational experiences of African American students in our public schools are unique. Specifically, African Americans have been the only group systematically and legally denied the right to an education. The educational malady of the past three decades, more commonly known as "the achievement gap," has deep and pervasive roots in history. Three landmark legal cases set the stage for what we today call the achievement gap. The first was Dred Scott v. Sanford. In 1856, the court ruled that a black man, his wife, and his children were not "citizens" of the United States and, thereby, could not benefit from the Constitution. In this document, the terms "people of the United States" and "citizens" were synonymous. All that these terms embodied is important because this decision was law until after the Civil War, and the decision carried with it far-reaching educational implications.

In 1895, African American spokesman and leader Booker T. Washington, in his "Atlanta Compromise Speech," set the stage for another solidification of the gap. While presenting at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, he quietly soothed racist southerners about the "uppity" blacks while simultaneously soothing the worried northerners whom the south was attempting to impress. Washington assured those in attendance, and around the United States, that "it is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top"; his most noted line, which set the stage for continued inequities, read: "In all things social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." This sentence was viewed to be a legal agreement of the separation of Black and White. He went on to urge the south toward beneficence, later stating that "the laws of changeless justice bind oppressor with oppressed." Less than one year later, such thinking was reaffirmed as gaps were legally concretized in areas such as housing, employment, and medical treatment. That is, in 1896, some thirty odd years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a second landmark case directly legalized the various black-white gaps. A case in point: in 1892, sixty-three years before Rosa Parks's refusal to give her seat to a white man, Homer Plessy was jailed for sitting in the "white" car of the East Louisiana Railroad. The case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, known to most as "Plessy v. Ferguson," concretized the notion of separate but equal.

Keeping this timeline in mind, we see that separate but equal was legally acceptable only one hundred years ago; further, it was less than fifty-five years ago that legislation passed to desegregate education in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In other words, legal and moral efforts to secure equity and excellence in the education of African American students have relatively short histories. Given that blacks were relegated to subhuman status in many ways, there was little moral outrage regarding segregated and unequal schools prior to Brown. In 2006, we see justifiable frustration and anger, but the moral outrage is weak—virtually non-existent.

Why ought moral outrage exist regarding the achievement gap? Several decades of student achievement data consistently shows that some groups of students score far below other groups, and it documents an inverse relationship between race and achievement. When a group of students consistently experiences negative school outcomes, the chances of its members leading fulfilling lives are diminished; the opportunities to be contributing members of this nation are compromised. The United Negro College Fund says it best: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." A mind is also a terrible thing to erase. When black and Latino children are miseducated, their gifts and talents are likely to atrophy, and all of America suffers.

There is no singular achievement gap; the achievement gap has many faces. These various gaps both individually and collectively contribute to minority students excelling less than white students relative to grades, test scores, and graduation rates. In essence, the omnibus "achievement gap" is a symptom of many other gaps, such as gaps in funding, resources, teacher quality, curriculum, family involvement, and expectations. The achievement gap starts at home, before children begin school, and then widens during the formal school years. For example, at the kindergarten level, there tends to be a one-year gap between black and white students; by the twelfth grade, it often becomes a four-year gap. It is counterintuitive that the gap widens while students are in school, yet seventeen-year-old black students tend to have the reading levels of thirteen-year-old white students. Whether we compare the achievement gap at the district, state, or national levels, the gap exists. No school district—urban, suburban, or rural—can be excused from addressing this social, educational, and moral issue.

Borrowing from the work of Barton, we can explain the primary correlates of the achievement gap. Based on his review of several hundred studies, Barton identifies fourteen variables that consistently contribute to the achievement gap. We must thoroughly examine two contexts to understand the achievement gap in a comprehensive manner: (1) school and (2) before and beyond school. Six school-related correlates appear consistently in the achievement gap literature. Because most students attend school for approximately thirteen years, these school correlates must be considered in terms of their cumulative impact.

Research consistently shows that a student's academic achievement is heavily dependent upon the rigor of the curriculum; yet, the curriculum tends to be less rigorous for black and Latino students. For example, these two groups are less likely to (a) have substantial credits in academic sources at the end of high school and (b) participate in advanced placement and gifted education classes.

The importance of teacher quality on student achievement speaks for itself. Black and Latino students are more likely to be taught by teachers who are unqualified, including teachers who lack certification, out of field teachers, teachers with the fewest credentials, and teachers with the lowest test scores. Inexperienced teachers, those with less than three years of teaching experience, are more likely to teach in urban settings. In schools with high percentages of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students, 21% of teachers have less than three years of experience; in schools with low CLD enrollment, 10% of teachers have less than three years of teaching.

In large classes, discipline and behavior problems are more likely. These issues detract from instructional time, hinder teachers' abilities to personalize instruction, and leave little room for quality student-teacher interactions. In schools where there are high percentages of culturally diverse students, class sizes are larger. For instance, in schools where CLD students represent 75% of the population, the average class size is thirty-one. In schools where CLD students are less than 10%, class size averages at twenty-two. Schools with higher percentages of CLD students are also less likely to have computers in the classrooms, Internet access, or updated, high-quality software; further, students in low-minority schools are given more assignments to conduct research on the Internet than students in high-minority schools.

Students cannot learn in unsafe, threatening environments. Black and Latino students more frequently report issues of classroom disruptions and of negative peer pressures (including gangs and fears about being attacked at school).

We recognize that schools alone did not create the gap, nor can they close it without support from families and the larger community. Eight additional correlates of the achievement gap, based in the home and community, must be addressed. To begin with, the extent to which parents spend quality time with their children varies by family composition. Being a sole caregiver with a low income depletes a parent's time and resources. A larger percentage of black students (compared to white and Latino students) live in such homes. In addition, there are many negative consequences to changing schools, including lower reading and math achievement. Black and Latino students are twice as likely as white students to change schools.

The extent to which caregivers are involved in their children's education affects students' achievements and behaviors. However, black and Latino parents tend to participate less in their children's educations than other parents. On a related correlate, parent-child reading positively affects language acquisition, literacy development, test scores, and achievement. Studies indicate that white students live in more literacy-enriched homes and are read to more often than black and Latino children.

Excessive television watching negatively affects students' achievements, with students doing less homework and participating in fewer intellectually stimulating activities after school. Reports indicate that black and Latino students watch more television than white children.

It goes without saying that poor health and hunger are detrimental to achievement. Black and Latino households have two to three times the food insecurity and hunger than those of white students'. This affects another correlate—birth weight. Infants born with low birth weight begin life at a disadvantage that does not disappear. Thus, a disproportionate percentage of children born with low birth weight have long-term disabilities and impaired development as well as delayed social development. Black infants are two times more likely to be of a low birth weight than are white and Latino infants. In addition, lead poisoning plays a role. The primary source of lead poisoning among children is older homes with lead-based paint. Excessive levels of lead reduce IQ and attention span, increase reading and learning disabilities, and increase behavioral problems. Black children are four times more likely to live in homes constructed prior to 1946 than are white and Latino children.

We must believe that closing the achievement gap is possible. If the aforementioned fourteen variables are the most powerful in contributing to, creating, and maintaining the gap, then it behooves us to address them in a systemic, comprehensive, and collaborative manner. Educators, families, community leaders, health professionals, and others must join forces to tackle this educational tragedy. Families and educators in K-12 settings cannot close the gap alone. Recognizing the intellectual and resource capital of our colleagues and students at Vanderbilt, we have created the Vanderbilt Achievement Gap Project. By working with the business community, families, and other universities, we can improve the quality of life for our culturally and linguistically diverse students. Change begins with courageous conversations, and thus we have developed the Achievement Gap seminar at the Warren Center.

Donna Y. Ford is a professor of special education and is the Betts Chair of education and human development at Peabody College. Gilman W. Whiting is a senior lecturer in the African American and diaspora studies program as well as the program's director of undergraduate studies.

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