The Achievement Gap

I’ve finally entered the older generation. Not the oldest, mind you: my cousin Eleanora at 93 is the oldest and dearest. But according to what I’m learning from my current crop of education students, I’m older. Sometimes wiser, sometimes, in comparison with them, simply possessing a longer memory. So with the Achievement Gap.

Anyone like me who grew up in the south during the 1950s and 60s, has no trouble believing in an education gap between whites and blacks. It was blatantly physical–fresh new schools in growing white suburbs; old, sometimes fire-trap buildings for black students. Updated textbooks for white students; outmoded, hand-me-down books for blacks. One of the most important goals of the civil rights movement was equality in public services: erase the “blacks at the back of the bus,” and separate railroad cars; allow all races to sit at the lunch counter and order cherry Cokes. But along with these changes, equality in education and voter rights were probably the most controversial and crucial goals. If black share-cropper families were terrorized into withdrawing their children from school to work in the fields, leaving the students far fewer months in school than their white counterparts–that was a serious lack.

We like to pretend that racial prejudice does not exist north of the Mason-Dixon line, but any honest educator, who witnesses what happens to students in poverty; any high school teacher in an urban integrated high school, especially one within a poor black neighborhood, will encounter the phenomena of African-American students being lured into gangs or teen pregnancy, not to mention, as my education students depict, lower standards for black students, and the silent shuttling of them into remedial, lower-performing classrooms. There are many hurdles, some within families, some within neighborhoods, some within the schools themselves, which stall black students at lower achievement than white counterparts.

This achievement gap has been around for decades, if not centuries. To put it bluntly: it’s the result of prejudice as the result of slavery. This prejudice is so pervasive, so nuanced that it’s often hard to know where to start in describing it: one area that strikes me repeatedly is the difficulty black students and white teachers have in relating to each other. Their styles of address do not jibe. Whereas many black adults tell youngsters and teens to shape up and behave–there can be a “jivving” element, an outspoken repartee; white adults, especially female teachers t employ serious and not very personal address, especially with students of a race different from their own. In part because any white educator has a deep-seated fear of offending black students.

This is a serious difference: unless black students are held to high standards of academic performance, they’re not likely to achieve them. And “being held” includes hearing it from one of their own. For centuries a desire and will and drive to achieve were, for a black person, tickets to oblivion. To stand out and draw the attention of a master or overseer meant the lash, meant being sent “down river” into the deep south where huge gangs of slaves worked in the most gruesome conditions on large plantations. I’m not surprised when my black students who are now teachers posit the idea that black students perform best when taught by black teachers. Black teachers themselves present the possibility of achieving power and status, and can require dedication and hard work from their students without raising the fear, so ancient and deep-seated, of a backlash.

As the Saint Paul school district discusses returning to a neighborhood-school configuration, to alleviate a budget crunch in part by reducing the need for busing, I wonder if this may also take advantage of another element of black culture which integration via busing did not: the “it takes a village” character of raising black children. The importance of extended family and neighbors depends a great deal on shared needs and a pattern of co-parenting, stepping in to guide a child no matter what one’s literal connection to that child might be. When my students read Frederick Douglass’ opening chapter in his autobiography, from the mid 1800s, they discover how frequently in slavery mothers were sold away from their children with the express purpose of weakening bonds of blood, and rendering both mother and father (who was, as in Douglass’ case, often the white master) absent to a child’s education.

As schools with all kinds of students struggle to meet the test score demands of No Child Left Behind, it’s crucial that we all, no matter what our race or history, look candidly and truthfully at what really works in motivating and sustaining all youth, then go about procuring it.

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