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Learning in color

Narrowing the achievement gap in schools requires acknowledging race, not ignoring it.

September 16, 2007

The achievement gap between African American and Latino students and their white peers is stark and persistent. It has existed for decades, and it's growing more pronounced. The data refute what would be reassuring explanations. The gaps in reading and math test scores are not due to income disparities, nor are they attributable to parents' educational levels. The simple fact is that most black and brown children do not do as well in school as most whites.

The data also show, however, that African American and Latino children are excelling in schools scattered throughout California and the nation, suggesting that the achievement gap is not intractable. Rather, there is a profound disconnect between what we say are high expectations for children of color and the quality of education delivered to them in the classroom.

All of which leads to an uncomfortable but important conclusion: If a less-stratified society is desirable, we must be prepared to design educational programs that explicitly take race into account, that address African American and Latino students specifically and that openly recognize that we are not a single society when it comes to the needs of our children.

That is not easy, and it runs against America's desire to move beyond a preoccupation with racial differences. In its last term, the Supreme Court struck down school integration programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., engaging in legal and moral sophistry to suggest that race no longer matters. And California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell set off a tremor last month when he called on the state's schools to help Latino and African American students close the gap.

The court is wrong and O'Connell is right: Race does matter, and schools are better off realizing it. Ironically, one of those who implicitly recognizes that fact is President Bush, whose No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set the same performance targets for all students and to report those results by race, among other categories, revealing the truth of racial disparities in learning.

There was a time when the gap seemed on its way to obsolescence -- a relic that Brown vs. Board of Education and school integration would remedy. From 1970 through the late '80s, the gap between blacks and Latinos and white students narrowed exponentially. Then, in the '90s, improvement leveled and the gap began to grow.

Assigning causes is difficult, but there are striking examples of success amid a sea of failure. Why does Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School in gang-plagued Compton have an Academic Performance Index score of 866, almost equal to those of elementary schools in Beverly Hills and higher than many in Santa Monica or Torrance? After all, the school is 100% minority, and 40% of the students are non-native English speakers. Why do 81% of the students at Edison Elementary in Long Beach, where 90% of the students are Latino, 72% of whom are learning English, score as proficient or above in mathematics?

There are a few answers. In schools that help all children excel, the focus is squarely on instruction. The "teacher quality gap" runs almost parallel to the achievement gap. In math and science, for example, only about half the teachers in schools with 90% or greater minority enrollments meet minimum requirements to teach those subjects -- far fewer than in predominantly white schools. Early intervention in reading is key, as is truly ending "social promotion" -- the practice of promoting students to the next grade even when their skills lag behind significantly. And at great schools, teachers and students talk. They talk about expectations for themselves and for each other.

Do we honestly believe all children can achieve? Yes, we do. It therefore follows that strategies tailored to African American and Latino students must be integrated into the schools they attend. That requires developing programs based on race and devoting special resources to minority children, an approach that may offend the Supreme Court and those who wish for a society in which this is not needed. To them, we say: It is fair to wish for the day when we may cease to talk about race; in the meantime, it is inexcusable to ignore it.

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