Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Matter of Dropouts: Understanding Differences within Racial and Ethnic Groups Rather Than between Groups Is More Likely to Aid Us in Developing Policies That Can Help Us Overcome the Achievement Gap

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Matter of Dropouts: Understanding Differences within Racial and Ethnic Groups Rather Than between Groups Is More Likely to Aid Us in Developing Policies That Can Help Us Overcome the Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

Challenging Assumptions About the Achievement Gap: Part Two

As an educational researcher, it's gratifying to wonder about some problem of practice, undertake a systematic investigation, and discover that your speculation or gut feeling about the issue proved right. This has been the case in our study of achievement gaps. Although today we are university professors with responsibilities for teaching and scholarship, other career experiences as teachers and school administrators also shaped our perspective on education. We questioned much of the research literature about the achievement gap between minority and majority students. Our personal observations and experiences with diverse populations of students told us that the achievement gap was not a matter of race or ethnicity, but rather a question of personal challenges faced by individual students. We believe that the key to policy development related to overcoming the achievement gap is more likely to be found by understanding differences within groups rather than between groups.

In our first study, reported in "Challenging Assumptions About the Achievement Gap" (Phi Delta Kappan, April 2005), we presented our findings from an examination of student achievement among black, Hispanic (or Latino), and white students (Ramirez and Carpenter 2005; Carpenter, Ramirez, and Severn 2006). That research determined that the singular definition of "achievement gap" (that is, the difference between white and minority students) misrepresents the complex and multi-layered dynamics at work in the academic achievement of black, Hispanic, and white students. Instead of the dominant and singular understanding of "the" achievement gap, we demonstrated that there are multiple gaps related to student achievement and that the more significant achievement gaps were not between groups, but within groups. We concluded that casting the achievement gap as a white/minority dichotomy was a risky misconception that potentially promotes poor policy solutions. That research was based on an analysis of data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (National Center for Education Statistics 2007).

We recently expanded our achievement gap research beyond the typical measure of student performance on tests to high school dropout status. Once again, we looked at data from black, Hispanic, and white student cohorts using the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. As in our earlier research, we examined differences in dropout status both between and within racial/ethnic groups, paying particular attention to differences or similarities in significant predictors for each group. Moreover, we explored whether the predictor variables for the three groups in our earlier study would also predict dropout behavior in the same manner. We found that the patterns of significant predictors for dropout status were not the same as in the earlier study, and in the process we uncovered a new set of variables associated with dropping out. Yet, the new set of significant predictors for dropout status did demonstrate some consistency with our earlier research. We found certain common patterns among white and Hispanic students, but we found no statistically significant differences in dropout status based on race/ethnicity. Thus, once again we found that within-group differences may be more significant than between-group differences (Carpenter and Ramirez 2007).

WHAT WE RESEARCHED

The overall thrust of our research has been to challenge the conventional wisdom about the achievement gap, which is typically characterized as a difference in learning between white and minority students. In our first study of achievement gaps, we looked at academic achievement and found not one but many gaps, and the most significant of these gaps existed within the racial and ethnic groups themselves. That study tested a large index of predictor variables for each racial/ethnic group and identified these as the most significant:

* Socioeconomic status (for all three groups);

* Participation in an English language acquisition program (for all three groups);

* Time spent on homework (for black and white students);

* Number of units of algebra taken (for Hispanic and white students); and

* Level of parent involvement (for all three groups). …

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