Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Facing Up to Realities: Harvard Economist Investigates the Racial Achievement Gap

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Facing Up to Realities: Harvard Economist Investigates the Racial Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

As an economist, Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson often applies quantitative analysis to public policy dilemmas, which yields data models and quantitative measures of complex issues. In tackling the racial achievement gap, the Harvard-based social policy expert has added investigation techniques from sociology and psychology to explore what might seem a forbidding topic for an economist. During his career, Ferguson has consulted and has served as a policy adviser on education, employment, youth development and urban development issues. As a father, he understands the challenges of raising African American children and brings that knowledge to his writings on teacher and parental impact on student academic performance.

In his investigation of minority student achievement in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Ferguson has conducted considerable survey work learning first-hand from students about their lives and school experiences. The research effort in Ohio, called the Tripod Project, "is to increase communication and build knowledge among teachers about ways of achieving success in the classroom by attending to all three legs of the instructional tripod--content, pedagogy and relationships--with the aim of helping all students, but especially African Americans and Latinos, to achieve at higher levels," according to Ferguson.

Ferguson's project recalls investigation efforts also undertaken in Shaker Heights by the late anthropologist Dr. John Ogbu. In contrast to findings by Ogbu that Blacks students are "disengaged" from their studies, Ferguson reports that they are just as motivated as Whites, but often lack the study skills necessary to improve upon their learning.

Black Issues caught up with Ferguson in late January for a discussion on the racial achievement gap.

BI: Why is it important to investigate and close the racial learning gap?

RF: You can think of it in a law different ways. You can think of it in a historical context insofar that it has been on the national agenda for a long time to pursue racial equality. You can put this in the context of the agenda of the earliest abolitionists looking forward to bringing to being a state of affairs that reflects some modicum of social justice. And so it's the current generation's social justice agenda.

Another way, however, to look at it is in the context of the future. It's important for the health and future stability of the society to attend to the achievement gap. There are at least two major trends in the society that increase the salience of this issue. One is the change in the relationship of skills to earnings that is related to the importance of skill in the business world.

As people have become quite accustomed to saying by now, there aren't many jobs where physical labor alone is likely to be sufficient to earn an income sufficient to support a family. So, this phrase "the knowledge economy" has some content to it insofar as there are people who are strong with regard to the skills and knowledge that schools teach. That's from the perspective of the individual.

You can take it from the perspective of the national economy in terms of what interests we have in one another's productivity and academic achievement. And even here for the United States to continue to be the pre-eminent economy in the world, we have to have the pre-eminent work force of the world, which means the work force that has the strongest skills.

This brings me to the second major trend that I was about to mention, which is the trend toward increasing percentages of the society being made up of Black and Brown people. The Whites will be a minority in a few decades from now. So every racial or ethnic group will be a minority group, and non-Whites collectively will be the majority and this will be the polity--the voters--and among the work force.

And so the health of the future economy depends upon the quality of the education that Black and Brown children receive. …

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