15-50 Segment 2: The Achievement Gap: Why do minority students in good schools still lag behind?

Synopsis: There are many good schools that try to ensure that every student gets the best education possible and an equal opportunity to succeed in their studies and extracurricular activities. Our guest says that despite efforts on the part of school administrators and teachers, there is still a racial achievement gap in even the most diverse and progressive schools. We discuss why the gap exists, how it affects the lives of students during and after their school years , and what educators and the community can do to help students of all races and ethnicities achieve.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Amanda Lewis, Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, University of Illinois-Chicago, and co-author with John B. Diamond of the book Despite the Best Intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools.

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The Achievement Gap:Why do minority students in good schools still behind

Marty Peterson: One of the ideas behind school integration was that if minority children went to the same schools as their white, more affluent counterparts they would do just as well as those students did academically. It makes sense that if you give all students the same opportunity to learn in schools with more resources, maybe better teachers and a safer environment, they would blossom. However, that’s not what Amanda Lewis found. Lewis is the Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She’s also the co-author with John B. Diamond of the book, Despite the Best Intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. She and Diamond spent five years gathering information at Riverview High School in a suburb outside of a large metropolitan area…

Amanda Lewis: It’s a city that’s been diverse for a long time, and in which the schools have been desegregated for probably close to 40 years. And it’s a, you know, a town a lot of people move to because the schools are good, and because they good parks and arts facilities and all those kinds of things, but it’s also a place people move in part because it is diverse, because there’s lots of other suburbs nearby that are much more racially segregated. It was a place for us, given our interest in trying to understand a larger phenomenon about racial achievement gaps in schools, an interesting place to study because in many ways, because of all these qualities it is kind of a best-case scenario. It’s a place where we wouldn’t necessarily expect to find large gaps in the academic outcomes for Black students and White students.

Peterson: So what is the racial achievement gap?

Lewis: So the racial achievement gap is a way of capturing a pattern in academic outcomes that we see locally and nationally and basically it captures the way that when we look at national test data, or state-level test data, when we look at SAT scores, when we look at GPAs, we see over time a consistent gap in the graph, you know the lines for White and Asian students and Black and Latino students. And that gap has occasionally narrowed ever so slightly but been very consistent for at least the past 30, 40 years.

Peterson: What Lewis and her colleague found at Riverview High showed that the gap was present there despite the equal opportunities students received. She says there are several reasons for the fact that White students do better on the whole than Black and Latino students. One is because of pressure put on teachers from White parents and communities…

Lewis: What we heard a lot from teachers was that there were parent putting pressure on them a lot, you know to make sure their kid was getting an A, you know my kid’s going to go to Yale or Harvard, you know all that kind of stuff. But it translated into an effect where even when parents weren’t intervening they would still be feeling a lot of those same pressures. So teachers described a lot of times acting in anticipation that a parent was likely to intervene, or you know in the kind of daily improvisational nature of school where I’m constantly like, me I’ve got to much going on among other things, teachers talked about realizing they were monitoring some kids more than others; that they were pushing them a little harder or making sure they turned in their homework or asking afterwards why they’d gotten a B on an exam partly because they didn’t want to have to hear it from parents later.

Peterson: Lewis says that teachers anticipated what the parents’ expectations were for their kids, and those expectations ran along racial lines…

Lewis: They would often look at White kids in their class and think, “oh, man, so-and-so got a B, you know the parents are going to be on me about it, you know. Hey so-and-so, why’d you get a B?” You know, “come by after class.” You know all these things are, unto themselves, every small moment doesn’t feel that big, but what we realized over time, they were sort of like death by a thousand cuts, right? Where over time the kind of cumulative pushing of some kids and accepting a less from other kids had impact in their, kind of, trajectories.

Peterson: Not only are the White students expected to do better by their teachers, Lewis says they are in the accelerated advanced placement classes in much larger numbers than their Black or Latino counterparts. She says that the grades from these classes are weighted and automatically make a student’s GPA rise…

Lewis: The investment in AP and Honors Classes by those who can get access to them is both because they’re better educational experiences, right? They have better teachers, they have the best educational resources in them, and we know this to be true nationally, but also when we’re thinking about things like college admissions, when you take an AP and Honors Class your GPA goes up, right? So if you get an A in an AP class, you don’t get four points, you get five points.

Peterson: And those grades will go a long way toward getting a student accepted at a good college, so nobody who’s benefitting from the system wants to do away with weighted grading. Those higher grade points are widening the gap between the number of White and Asian students going to four-year colleges, and Black and Latino students heading to two-year institutions…

Lewis: This is partly about the kind of cumulative effect of differential expectations along the way. So that, yeah, White students, by the time they get to the end of high school, are better positioned to go to a four-year college, I mean they have more resources to go to four-year colleges, and more kind of cultural capital and other things about how to navigate higher educational systems, but they are, you know, as we write about. I mean, they’re graduating with better GPAs and sometimes higher test scores, and so in that way they are kind of set up better for that. The thing that we just wanted to make clear in this work is that part of the reason why that’s true, why we get to that, there are things that the schools are doing that widen those gaps, that contribute to those gaps in a way they don’t mean to and that they could be doing differently.

Peterson: Lewis wants to make clear that there are Black students who do excel and go to four-year colleges. What’s interesting, though, is that the families of these students behave the way that middle- and upper-class White families do – they push their kids, monitor their progress and cultivate their talents. However, she says that their interventions at the school are not as successful…

Lewis: It was not as successful partly because of the way schools responded to them, but also because a larger thing that we know, which is that even middle-class Black families don’t have the same resources that middle-class White families have. They don’t have the same economic resources because of wealth gaps that are kind of distinct from people’s income, but they also didn’t have the same kind of social resources. So, in terms of their networks, in terms of whether they knew the superintendent, or had the superintendent’s number in their cell phone, all those kinds of things meant that, yes, it wasn’t that Black families weren’t trying to advocate for their kids, it’s just that they were doing so with less success and with fewer resources.

Peterson: So how do we close the racial achievement gap? Lewis says that we need to change our expectations of what White and minority students can do, and start challenging their Black and Latino classmates…

Lewis: There was actually a teacher at the school who taught math, and recognized that there weren’t a lot of Black and Latino students in the Advance Placement math classes. And he had taught at a school before that was mostly Black and Latino and so AP math had been full of these kids. And so he offered a summer geometry class so that these kids could catch up. And a bunch of these kids took him up on this offer and, in fact, he increased the number of Black and Latino students in AP math just in a couple years. And what it showed, I think, a lot of people importantly was that these kids were totally capable of doing the work, but they just weren’t getting pulled into those spaces. And I think that’s true more generally. If we operate from the assumption that all these kids have the capacity to do high-level work, then we have to create context in which all of them are expected, encouraged, pushed to do high-level work. And not accept a system that pushes some kids more than others and we have these really unequal outcomes at the end.

Peterson: Another place where race causes a disparity is in disciplinary matters. Lewis says that Black and Latino students are sent to detention in much higher numbers than White and Asian students…

Lewis: In schools we now have a process where we say there’s one set of rules that apply to everybody, but we apply those rules really differently. So kids are differentially pulled into discipline, and they’re differentially processed once they get into disciplinary. And it really is imperative upon schools and districts to make sure that you either have a set of rules that apply to everybody or, if the rules are too punitive, then to change the rules. To not just apply the rules selectively to some kids (more) than others, not only because it’s not fair but because it really signals to kids that you’re not a full citizen in this space. So those kinds of differential patterns and discipline also have academic consequences for kids, it says that they belong here, that this is their school, that people want them there, all those kinds of things.

Peterson: Lewis says that parents and educators need to look at the data in their district and see where there are disparities in academic progress between White students and Black and Latino students…

Lewis: A lot of schools are operating with really good intentions and kind of fall back on that. You know, we’re doing our best, we’re trying hard, you know we may have differential gaps in performance and things, but you know nobody here is racist or that sort of thing. And I think we operate in those ways so it’s really antiquated notions about what racism is and how it looks. To that extent, we really need to look at those data, look at our values and say, okay, this isn’t the outcome we want to produce, then how do we change the practices and policies that schools are participating in? We can’t any longer blame kids or blame their families – that’s, you know, another popular story out here is that if some kids are successful and others aren’t, it’s because their parents value education more or less. And, that’s just not true, at least not true along racial lines. So there might be a class dynamics with kind of the available resources that families have but in terms of along racial lines we know that Black and Latino families value education as much if not more than other groups, right? So those kinds of things that we often fall back on that let us off the hook aren’t true. And we need to recognize now that as educators it’s our responsibility to kind of take a much more proactive role in trying to mediate some of these outcomes.

Peterson: There is a lot more research on the topic in Amanda Lewis’s and John Diamond’s book than we’ve been able to discuss here. For a complete picture of the racial achievement gap that they found in a diverse, progressive school district, pick up, Despite the Best Intentions, available in stores and online. For more information about our guests log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

 

 

 

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