In the Academic and Think Tank World, Pondering Achievement-Gap Remedies Takes Center Stage: Pursuit of quality education is civil rights struggle of today, scholars say
After 30 years of continuous research, widespread intervention and frustrating results, the prospects for closing the achievement gap between Black, Latino and White students remain viable, scholars concluded at a recent conference in Washington, D.C. Analysis and remedies of the academic achievement gap, principally between Black and White students in grades K-12, took center stage at a conference titled "Closing the Gap: Promising Strategies for Narrowing the Achievement Gap." The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, and the Edison Schools organization convened a notable group of scholars who presented ideas and research on strategies to boost the academic performance of under-achieving minority students.
"We are not helpless when it comes to closing the racial gap in academic achievement," declared Dr. Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings.
Dr. Benno C. Schmidt Jr., Edison Schools' board chairman, characterized the pursuit of quality education as "the civil rights struggle of today."
Unlike the fierce debate around school vouchers, which is expected to be part of the Bush administration's proposed reform of low-performing schools, the conference attracted scholars of varying positions but resulted with virtually no sharp policy disputes.
Instead, the conference proceeded with a spirit of optimism and confidence. A good part of the optimism came from the Edison Schools officials, who expressed their belief that meaningful reform in schools with high Black and Latino populations could significantly boost academic performance.
"Our experience is that racial and ethnic gaps can be solved," says Dr. John Chubb, chief education officer of Edison Schools.
While focusing on the broad topic of the achievement gap, the conference highlighted Edison Schools' emergence as a school system that claims to be successfully pushing Black and Latino students to meet high academic standards. The for-profit organization, which was founded in 1992, privately manages 113 schools across the nation, that remain part of public school systems. Many of the Edison Schools are public charter schools. Some 57,000 students, 70 percent of whom are Black and Latino, attend Edison Schools, according to Edison officials.
"We would be the 60th largest school district in the country. It makes sense for us to take a leadership role," says Chris Whittle, chief executive officer and president of Edison Schools.
Conference organizer Tom Loveless credited Edisons School officials for coming up with the conference idea and teaming with Brookings. "We wanted to focus on the solutions," Loveless says. The conference also included presentations from Edison Schools teachers and a principal.
In addition to the conference spotlighting the emergence of Edison Schools as a player in the achievement gap debate, the collaboration of Brookings and Edison showcased what organizers deemed as important school reform research for eliminating the racial/ethnic disparity in academic performance.
Among the key topics covered during the conference were research documenting the effect of class size on performance; the performance of students in private schools; and the role of federal resources in helping close the achievement gap.
SETTING THE TONE
Former Democratic congressman Floyd Flake of New York opened the conference with a keynote address that named low expectations on the part of schools and educators as a major culprit in stunting the learning environment and achievement of Black students. Flake, who is an Edison Schools executive, cited other factors as well, including the pattern of Black students isolating themselves in integrated educational settings, and students' failure to get help.
"We must challenge ourselves to meet those levels of high expectations," Flake told a group of 200 who had assembled for the conference.
Ideologically, Flake's speech contained elements of both conservative and liberal positions, which also seemed to reflect the spectrum of positions taken by scholars and educators present at the conference. Flake, a highly regarded minister in Queens, N.Y., has in recent years been sought after as a political ally by conservatives and moderates for his advocacy of self-help programs in community development and education.
For the most part, ideological differences among scholars did not provoke sharp disputes. In one instance, however, Dr. Ronald Ferguson, an economist and a public policy lecturer at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, took notable exception to language in a paper presented by Drs. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom.
The Thernstroms, a well-known husband-and-wife scholar team who have written widely on race in America, described the challenge of inner-city students as one where kids have to set themselves apart from their environment. The Thernstroms are considered to be conservative and have spoken out against affirmative action.
"These are kids who need to learn to stand apart from their family, the culture of their neighborhood and their peers on the street," wrote Abigail Thernstrom, a political scientist, in the paper that is part of a forthcoming book, titled Getting the Answers Right: The Racial Gap in Academic Achievement and How to Close It.
Ferguson, who served as a discussant for the Thernstrom paper, quoted the sentence to the audience and said the notion that Black and Latino students have to separate themselves from their communities and families to be able to achieve was "fairly offensive."
"The interpretation simplifies the identity trip that kids have to go through when they're young," Ferguson noted.
He added that the struggle for many bright kids is sending signals to their peers that academic achievement is not attained by snubbing others. A smart student is usually not harassed by his or her peers when a positive relationship is maintained with non-achieving peers, according to research Ferguson has conducted on the culture of Black middle- and high-school students.
Ferguson says researchers and scholars have to pay close attention to the culture among Black and Latino students when they develop policy prescriptions to close the achievement gap. Abigail Thernstrom conceded that her language may have been ill-advised, but later told a reporter that social science analysis and cultural prescriptions have their limits.
"Students have to focus on excellence," she says.
Research data shows that when compared to students of other ethnic and racial backgrounds, Black students benefit more when placed in classes with fewer numbers of students, according to a study by Dr. Alan B. Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, and Diane Whitmore, a doctoral candidate at Princeton.
"Black students gain eight to 10 points [on standardized tests] by being in small classes," Krueger told the conference audience.
Krueger explained Black students are more likely to attend schools "where classmates are disruptive," and that this may account for the increased benefit of smaller class sizes.
One of the research teams explored the strategic role the federal government might play in targeting funding and other resources to states. Dr. David Grissmer, a senior management scientist at the RAND Institute, and Ann Flanagan, an education consultant, recommended strategic funding initiatives based on findings that targeted funding can raise student achievement levels.
The team recommended that federal spending be made to target the disparities between states where inequality is most prevalent. For instance, Southern states spend the least on education and the achievement scores are low for all ethnic and racial groups in those states.
Second, the team said the federal government can target central cities where Blacks are performing poorly in urban schools. Third, the federal government can help improve the overall quality of teachers nationwide by establishing programs to attract stronger students to the profession. The federal government also can develop a loan forgiveness initiative, targeted teaching scholarships and a program similar to the GI Bill for the teaching profession.
Photo (Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Dr. Stephan Themstrom and Dr. Abigail Themstrom)…