What Works To Close The Education Gap

Guests

Diane Ravitch, education historian
Angel Harris, associate professor, department of sociology and the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

It's a persistent and troubling problem: the gap between white students and students of color in academic achievement. There are many theories about how to resolve these disparities, from interventions with parents, increased accountability for teachers, school programs and testing, and others.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. We're following events in Libya today. Rebels claim to control the capital Tripoli, and there are reports that all three of Moammar Gadhafi's sons have been captured, though the whereabouts of Gadhafi himself remain unknown.

President Obama is making a statement this hour on the latest developments. We'll air his comments in full later in the hour, and we'll bring you any new developments as they happen.

In the meantime, we're talking today about the achievement gap. Educators hear the statistics all the time, but if you're a parent or even just an observer, the facts are still shocking: Students of color lag well behind their white counterparts, despite education reforms aimed at narrowing the gap.

By age 17, the average black student is a full four years behind the average white student. Race and economic background are still overwhelming determinants when it comes to academic success in this country.

Last week, the W.E.B. De Bois Institute for African and African-American Research - African and African-American Research at Harvard University met for its annual panel discussion on Martha's Vineyard. This year's discussion centered around racial and ethnic achievement gaps and how to close them.

We'll speak with two of the panel members this hour, education historian Diane Ravitch and sociologist Angel Harris, and we want to hear from you. What works? Parents, teachers, what initiatives have you seen in your schools that have helped to address the problem? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Diane Ravitch is with us from Long Island. She's an education historian and the author of the book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, it's great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Also with us today is Angel Harris. He's associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. He's in Las Vegas, at member station KNPR. Welcome to you.

ANGEL HARRIS: Thank you, thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Diane Ravitch, let's start with you. Let's frame the problem so that we know what it is we're addressing. How would you define the achievement gap?

RAVITCH: Well, there is a significant difference in the test scores of children who are, on the one hand, white and Asian and children who are black and Hispanic. The achievement gap usually refers to the differences between the test scores of black and white children. It's the one that's been documented for the longest period of time. And the achievement gap has always existed, as long as the nation itself has existed, because of the differences in the socioeconomic conditions of different racial groups.

It actually narrowed very substantially in the 1970s and 1980s, and since the 1980s, it has narrowed somewhat but not nearly as much as during the '70s and '80s. So we know it's not impervious to change but that we're not doing the kinds of things that would make the big difference that was made in the '70s and '80s.

ROBERTS: Angel Harris, would you add anything to that definition?

HARRIS: Yeah, I think that the nature of the problem is that it's a really big problem that I think many people don't really respect the depth of the problem. So essentially, like Diane mentioned, that the gap was closing in the '70s and '80s and in fact that the gap did close from the '60s to about 1990 or so, and then the convergence of the gap stopped.

And the rate of decline of the gap from 1960 to 1990, if the gap continued declining at that rate, the gap would close in reading in six decades and a little over 10 decades in math. And so I think that when people think about the gap, that is not necessarily obvious, that it's a long-term problem.

ROBERTS: And there's been a lot of talk about the causes of it, with a lot of blame spread around. I'd rather this hour concentrate on what seems to work. But in a very sort of facile way, it's clearly not one cause. It's not just teachers. It's not just students. It's not just family structure. It's not just poverty. You know, it's not just culture. What am I missing? What else is contributing to the issue, Angel Harris?

HARRIS: Well, I think that one of the things that contributes to the problem is that we have a model of education that we currently deliver, and all the solutions that we try to come up with still keep that model intact.

And so as a result, all the policy solutions tend to be sort of incremental changes, and this leads us to spin our wheels, and we're not able to gain any traction in solving the problem because I think the same model of education, you know, which is, you know, pouring the knowledge into the kid's head is still intact.

ROBERTS: Let's turn this over to our callers because we already have several on the line. And if you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email, talk@npr.org. This is Noel(ph) in Walnut Creek, California. Noel, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

NOEL: Hi, I just - I've been a special education teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area for a while, and I've seen many different kind of piecemeal approaches given to students of color. And one thing that I just keep coming back to that I want it discussed by these folks, is that oftentimes, you know, the people are talking about kind of soft things that we can't control, like family structure or poverty.

But research actually shows that kids, based on socioeconomic class, not race, come to school with such a vocabulary, many thousands of words, less than kids from a middle-class or an upper-middle-class background.

And I'm wondering why. It seems like it would be such a straightforward thing to provide really intensive language instruction, like somatic mapping, something to really build strong cognitive structures based on language development instead of just kind of focusing on all this soft stuff that we can't control, like poverty.

ROBERTS: Diane Ravitch, do you have a reaction for Noel?

RAVITCH: Yeah, sure. First of all, I would say that we can control poverty. We can't completely eliminate it, but when you give up on even trying to eliminate it, the achievement gap is certainly not going to disappear.

The one thing that strikes me, looking at the achievement gap over many, many decades, is that it is tightly correlated with poverty and with socioeconomic conditions. You can look at any testing program in this country, or for that matter anywhere in the world, and there's a tight correlation between SAT scores and family income, ACT stores, family income, the federal test scores, the state scores.

The affluent kids score at the top, and the kids from poor families score at the bottom. There are things we can do. I mean, if we had programs to actually improve the health and medical treatment of women who are pregnant, that would reduce learning disabilities by at least a third.

I mean, many of the children who are born to poor mothers who haven't had medical care have learning disabilities, and that affects their - obviously, they don't come to school ready to learn.

We should do much, much more in terms of early childhood education. Every child should have the opportunity to have the language development necessary so that when they arrive in school, they're ready to learn.

One of the points that I was trying to get across during our panel discussion is that when we look at how poverty has remained intact, I think it was Henry Louis Gates made the point that when Dr. Martin Luther King died in 1968, the black poverty rate was 35 percent for children.

The black poverty rate for children today is 35 percent. In some cities, it's even worse. In Houston it's - the poverty rate amongst children, and that would be both black and Hispanic, it's a majority of the children. So we actually have to have social programs to reduce poverty to make sure that kids and adults and families have the ability to be healthy and that the kids arrive in school with the early childhood education so that the achievement gap doesn't exist on the very first day of school.

ROBERTS: And to Noel's point, Angel Harris, about vocabulary, or if there are other sort of remedial skills that might help close this gap, what's your reaction to that?

HARRIS: Well, I think it's important to focus on that, but it's also important to mention that the gap exists when kids enter school for sure. However, kids are most similar in terms of skill set when they enter school, when they begin first grade.

And what happens is that over time, the gap begins to widen, and so what you see is that there are studies that show that when you compare blacks and whites who are similarly situated with regard to social class background, the gap is very small in reading, it's still there in math but substantially smaller, and even when you maintain that comparison over time as the students matriculate through schooling, you see the gap begin to widen.

So yeah, it's important to address those deficiencies early on, but, you know, we also have to recognize that the gap widens over time as kids matriculate through the schools, through the school cycle.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Lawrence(ph) in Connecticut, who says: Okay, kids have trouble in school, but how to help big problem? Is it proper to group students by race? The longer we talk about race, the longer it will take for it to go away. Can't you and your guests find some better category or classification in the discussion of education? Angel Harris, let's start with you.

HARRIS: Well, I think it's important to talk about race and to continue to look at education in terms of race, and here's why: We know that right now, the average black and Latino student is graduating high school with eight-grade skill set. In other words, the average black and Latino student, when they graduate high school, they have the same skill sets that whites have in the eighth grade, okay.

So keep that in mind, and now also remember that the U.S. population is rapidly diversifying, and by 2040 or so, we're going to have - roughly half the population are going to be comprised of black and brown people. So let's think about that. A child born today, when they're 30, half the population will be black or brown.

You can't have half your population walking around with, on average, eighth-grade skill set. There's no way that doesn't affect everyone. And so it's important to keep track of this for that very reason, because the problem - it's a racialized problem. There's a reason - you know, the fact that different groups of kids are matriculating through what's supposed to be the same system, and you have these very different outcomes suggests that something is problematic with the whole process.

ROBERTS: We are talking about the achievement gap with Angel Harris and Diane Ravitch. We will have more with them in a moment. And parents, teachers, what initiatives have you seen in your schools that have helped address the achievement gap? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Or by email, the address is talk@npr.org.

And also just a reminder, we are standing by, waiting for the president to give a statement on the situation in Libya. When he does, we will bring you that statement later on this hour, along with an update on the fighting in Tripoli. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. In Libya this hour, rebel fighters continue to hunt for Moammar Gadhafi. They're also making plans for the future of their country now that one rebel leader says the era of Gadhafi is over.

President Obama is expected to make a statement this hour. We will bring you his remarks in full in a few minutes.

Right now, we're talking about the persistent achievement gap in many schools and what we can do to close the divide between white students and students of color. What initiatives have you seen, parents and teachers, that would in your schools and have helped to address the problem? Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Diane Ravitch, education historian and the author of the book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." She also served as assistant secretary of education in the administration of the first President Bush. And Angel Harris, associate professor in the department of sociology and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.

Diane Ravitch, just before the break, we were addressing Lawrence's email about the value of assessing the achievement gap by race, as opposed to, say, something like class, economic status. Do you see a distinction there that's important?

RAVITCH: Well, actually, I don't because I think one of the reasons we track by race is because we have a long history in this country of racial prejudice, discrimination, oppression, slavery and so forth. And so we do care very much that we remove the differences and the persistent gaps.

And one of the indicators of the gap is intense racial - the combination of intense racial segregation and intense poverty. And I spoke earlier about the fact that the gap had narrowed very substantially in the '70s and '80s, and we can learn something by looking back to what happened then.

And what is it that happened then that's not happening now or that we're not doing enough of? And one of the reasons the gap was reduced then was because there was desegregation, and in many cases, as both whites and middle-class black left the cities, school systems have become in some ways even more segregated than they were at the time of the Brown decision.

So it's that combination of racial segregation and concentrated poverty that is really toxic. And there were other things that happened at that time that would point the way to solutions. That was the time in which the federal government began to invest in early childhood education. That was the time when there was class size reduction. And we know from a lot of research that black children in particular benefit substantially from smaller classes because the attention - the individual attention, really helps.

So basic nutrition, basic health, all these things make a big difference, and they made a huge difference, and we are now off on a kind of wild goose chase for privatization and other ways of reducing the gap that have never been proven to be effective. And we're turning our back on what we know are the research-based approaches, which did work and will work again if we're willing to actually do them and invest in them.

ROBERTS: Taylor(ph) joins us now on the line from Oakland, California. Taylor, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TAYLOR: Hi, thank you. I went to a public school district in Oakland, and I'm an African-American woman. And I left school early. I dropped out and then again returned to school at the community college system. And I find that the curriculum is really exclusive of cultural history and things that pertain to (unintelligible) non-white students and that culture and even positive images of them.

It's mainly all these triumphs of Westernization, that I think can be sort of discouraging or even oppressive in the classroom. I think if curriculum was more inclusive of different cultures and encouraging and embracing of things that may be a strong quality that a culture possesses, that might be a little - it might be more inspiring and interesting for students to stick with something, to pursue higher education after high school and things like that.

ROBERTS: Taylor, thanks for your call. Angel Harris, you had sort of a similar story. You were a less-than-engaged high school student who ended up going to college almost kicking and screaming. Can you tell us about your experience?

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HARRIS: Well, sure. I - yeah, I, you know, went to school in Manhattan. I went to Manhattan Center for Science and Math, where I proceeded to fail both science and math. In the class of 242 students, I graduated - my class rank was 217. And so yeah, I was a very poor student and I wasn't going to go to college.

And I was very fortunate that a friend of mine had twin aunts in high school, and they encouraged me to go to college. And they literally, you know, drove me down to Grambling State University. I had never left New York before then, and I got to Grambling - northern, rural Louisiana - and did well.

But I think it's important to mention that - something that I like to talk about when I talk about this achievement gap problem is that we have to - one of the problems is that we don't understand the language of distributions and proportions.

And so for example, we understand that height had a distribution. Some people are really, really short, and some people are really tall, but most people sit somewhere in the middle.

And so it's important to understand that concept for this reason. If I randomly assign people to the state of Hawaii and then randomly assign some people to the state of Kansas, 10 years from now, we go back, chances are that there's going to be a higher proportion of people who can swim in Hawaii from the people that we randomly sorted.

There's going to be someone who can swim in Kansas, and really, really well. And they're probably going to be one of the best swimmers of the whole group. But it's important not to normalize that person, right, because that's the outlier. Everything has a distribution. Someone's going to make it out of a tough neighborhood.

There are people who make it out of tough neighborhoods all the time, but it's important not to take those experiences and normalize them, but to recognize that those are actually, you know, outliers. They're quirky bounces of the dice that, you know, stars lined up, you know, whatever happened, but for the most part, we can't normalize that.

And that's typically the successful charter school that's doing really, really well. But for the most part, that's the problem that we have with scaling up, scaling up the things that work in one school, we have a tough time sort of replicating that and scaling it up to a larger scale.

And so - but all this is related to the idea that yeah, there are some people who make it from tough environments and tough neighborhoods, but it's important not to normalize those experiences and recognize that in any rough situation, someone's got to be toward the top of the distribution.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mark(ph) in Glenwood, Colorado. Mark(ph), welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK: Yeah, how are you doing today?

ROBERTS: Good, how are you?

MARK: My question really concerns the cultural gap between - the cultural differences between the Caucasian student and Latino or the African student. And really it centers on these two things:

Number one: Has there been any research done in which a teacher from a economically depressed neighborhood or from a Latino or a black neighborhood who is of that culture teaches kids in that? And do they then have a higher achievement gap closed by that, as opposed to a Caucasian teacher teaching the same children? Is there any research that has addressed that?

And then my second thing is, I just want to say I teach in Glenwood Springs, and I teach a lot of Latino kids, who are newly across the border. And how can a teacher - what are ways teachers can address the cultural differences and try and connect with those kids?

ROBERTS: Mark, thanks for your call. So Diane Ravitch, I think he's asking two things, one about how much teachers can relate to kids who might not look like them or talk like them or have the same expectations as them and how kids can see those potential teachers as role models or mentors.

RAVITCH: I think it's very important that every teacher has the background and training to be able to relate to the students who are in front of them, even though they may be ethnically or racially different. And this is why teachers can't go into the classroom with no training or just a few weeks of training. They have to be prepared to help kids who have special needs, who have disabilities and who are culturally different from them.

But Dr. James Comer at Yale University has, for many years, been promoting a program in which the culture of the school is very welcoming both to the students and to the teachers. That doesn't mean everyone has to be of the same race or the same cultural background, but certainly they have to understand that child development is very important and understand that children develop at different rates, and parents and teachers and the community and the students need to work together.

The research that I've seen about matching teachers and children by race or ethnicity suggest that there - it doesn't make any difference. I think what's much more important is having the professional skill and knowledge and training to be able to work with children of all different backgrounds and to help bring out the best in them.

And I think that one of the terrible things that's happening right now in our country is that we're using test scores, a standardized test, as a kind of a one-size-fits-all model where child development becomes unimportant because we're expecting all children to develop at exactly the same rate and in the same way, and it just doesn't work that way because children, especially in this country today, have so many different issues and backgrounds that they come from, and it's very important that their teachers, their principals be prepared to help and work with and encourage all different kinds of children and help them grow and become better people.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Bruce in Oakland who says: How does peer pressure play into the situation? I've heard of black students who excel in school being put down for it, i.e., being told that they are so white. Angel Harris, you have a new book out about this very thing, sort of debunking the idea that this is a particularly race-based issue that kids are afraid to achieve among their peers.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, certainly, there are some children who are teased for doing well academically, yes, but the research suggests that there's a general phenomenon among youth that, you know, this occurs for youth across the board, you know, it's common that, you know, to tease the nerd, you know, tease the geek. And so this is something that happens across all groups. But because of the gap, it seems to be highlighted when it happens among blacks. Are there black children who tease others for doing well academically? Sure.

My research suggests that they comprise perhaps less than 20 percent of the black population, and that's not different from the white population, but it doesn't - it's not as prevalent as people might think it is. And in fact, studies suggest that the kids who do better academically are the ones that are more popular. If I can, I want to return to this question of culture. It's an important issue because it's something that people, you know, think about, look at their cultural differences, perhaps the difference is due to the fact that blacks and Latinos have a culture that does not value education.

And so this is sort of a common narrative that we hear in the education community. But it's important to not equate culture with intent or desire to fail. So, for example, you know, in general, kids do not want to fail. Kids do not take pride in getting a zero on an exam. They're not, you know, they - I don't think they engage in contests to see who can get the lowest score or who's going to be the village idiot. It's not something that kids take pride in. And so when - what usually happens is that in children, you know, many of them come to school without the necessary skill set to be successful.

They don't enroll in AP classes, and people say, oh, well that's - they don't value education. They don't value high-level courses. But it's hard for kids who enroll in calculus when he hasn't learned algebra. And so what happens is what many teachers are observing what they sort of are labeling as culture, they're observing a lack of academic skill set. They lack - they're observing students who have not acquired the necessary skill to go to the curriculum that they're being asked to go through.

Remember, if at 12th grade, black and Latino 12th graders on average have eighth grade skill set. So when they enter high school in the ninth grade, they're pretty much being asked to go to a ninth grade curriculum with a sixth grade skill set. And so what you're going to see is you're going to see people who are frustrated with what they're being asked to do. And it's not fun to do something that you're not very good at. And so people will see that and say, oh, that's just driving the gap.

But unless you believe that this culture is happening in the first grade, where the kids are actually purposely trying to fail in the first and second grade, it can't - that can't be the cause of the gap, but rather, I think, people are looking at a response to lacking the skill set to do what's being asked.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We go now to a call from Kathleen(ph) in Modesto. Kathleen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KATHLEEN: Thank you for taking my call. I was a substitute teacher for a couple of years, and something that I learned real quick is a lot of teachers because of all the standardized testing I was subbing for teachers so they could do paperwork. And, you know, it's kind of become a little bit adversarial between students and teachers only because we have this big standardized testing that everyone is having to deal with. But one of the things that I was able to do with my students and this was - I substituted primarily in middle school and high school - was just talk about some life skills, how do you conduct yourself in a class.

One of my graduate classes I took introduced a strategy called SLANT, and it's a mnemonic for sit up, lean forward, activate your thinking, name key information and track the talker - how to participate in a classroom discussion, things nonverbal and just all sorts of helps so that a student can realize that they have a lot more control over what's happening with their learning environment and their learning experience than they realize and just to give them ideas that have nothing to do with intellect or strategies, let's put it that way.

That have nothing to do with intellect but have everything to do with feeling some success, some authentic validation because we can tell them they're doing a great job, but they know inside of themselves whether or not they're really doing it. And I remember one Latino young man in a history class I subbed for, and I was sharing some of these, you know, life skill tips, and I could just see the light bulb going off in his head. And he was in a higher-level class, and he was doing his best, but, you know, you could just see that all of this was - he was thinking, oh, I never thought of that.

You could just see the whole kind of idea of, wow, it's a lot more than just killing yourself and working hard. There are some real strategies to getting through these classes.

ROBERTS: Kathleen, thank you for your call. We are almost out of time, but, you know, when we have conversations like this or when you have panels like you did at the Dubois Institute last week, do you feel, Diane Ravitch, that there is some hope for effective strategies for making a difference here?

RAVITCH: Oh, I think there definitely is hope. I think what's missing right now in this country is that we are trapped into a kind of monologue about how reform schools that is terribly misguided, and the strategies are, first of all, privatization through charter schools and vouchers which will lead us nowhere because there's now an abundance of research that show that charter schools don't do any better unless they skim the most motivated children, which will make the regular public schools worse. And then there are attacks on teachers, and that's certainly not going to improve education.

ROBERTS: We have to leave it there, I'm afraid. Diane Ravitch is the author of the book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." She joined us from her home in Long Island. And Angel Harris, associate professor of the Department of Sociology and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, he joined us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Thanks to you both. Coming up, President Obama's statement on Libya. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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