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The Root Cause Of The Black-White Learning Gap

FORBES 2 Days Ago

by James Marshall Crotty
I received an email from school choice advocates, the impressive Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a few days back, exclaiming that they were “appalled and dismayed at the discovery that at least 90 public schools in New York City failed to pass a single Black or Hispanic student on the state standardized tests in 2013.”

The BAEO gleaned this information from an important policy paper by Families for Excellent Schools entitled “The Forgotten Fourth,” which contends that in one-fourth of New York City public schools – 371 in total — 9 out of 10 children fail to meet minimal state standards of competency. Keep in mind that according to No Child Left Behind, states fashion their own tests and benchmarks. As I noted in a previous post, Obama’s New Waiver Policy: Some Children Left Behind?, in order to meet these minimal yardsticks, and qualify for lucrative Race to the Top funding, states are financially motivated to lower standards so that more students pass.

Nevertheless, even with these watered down measures – and President Obama’s standards-weakening NCLB waivers – most of New York City’s black students fail to keep up (I deal with Hispanic underachievement in a separate post). As noted by BAEO, “at 31 city schools with a combined enrollment of 1065 Black students, none passed the state math exam … State reading exams saw similar results.”

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are distressing, if not surprising, results. As sociologists Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips noted in their book The Black-White Test Score Gap, the black-white learning divide can be mostly tied to the black-white learning gap. In other words, rather than poverty causing academic underachievement, it is academic underachievement that often leads to poverty. Moreover, as noted in the documentary Crotty’s Kids, of the 50% of urban black men who fail to graduate high school, 60% will spend time in prison. These dropouts are, in turn, far more likely to experience a lifetime of substance abuse, chronic malnutrition, and, yes, poverty.

According to the BAEO, “What we are witnessing here is a system that is supposed to protect our children and to prepare them for success in life but that is actually guaranteeing their destruction.” By “system” BAEO means those forces responsible for keeping black kids locked in failing schools (i.e., teachers unions, school boards, and, ultimately, local, state and federal government education policies that entrench low expectations and restrict school choice).

However, are these usual suspects the root cause of black underachievement? After all, even with a compassionate black President, an ambitious and creative Education department taking marching orders from him, pro-Obama teachers unions working in tandem with both, and an appreciable rise in black-run urban charter and alternative public schools, we are still not seeing an across-the-board closing of the black-white — let alone black-Asian — learning divide.

The root cause, of course, is something that neither the President nor well-intentioned apologists for black academic failure (who cite everything from boredom to Common Core to institutional racism as causal agents), nor union-bashers, nor even school choice advocates care to admit: the lack of respect for, role modeling of, and high expectations for rigorous academic study in many black homes and communities. As noted by courageous African-American journalist, Jason L. Riley, author of the essential Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, “anti-intellectualism permeates black culture.”

Indeed, a 2013 research report by the Economist Magazine Intelligence Unit found that culture, not income, was the primary determiner of academic achievement around the world. As the Economist revealed, in countries that are far more impoverished, far more resource-deprived, where life is far more cruel and unjust than the worst ghetto in America, academic achievement is prized as the ticket out. In addition, the academic results from those areas, as the Economist notes, are far superior to what we see in America’s inner cities. A former third-world nation turned global economic powerhouse like China — which now routinely leads the world in global measures of not only math and science, but reading as well – is all the empirical evidence you need to buttress the Economist findings.

To give national color to these global findings, Mr. Riley notes that the achievement gap between black and white students in America has “persisted for decades despite massive injections of money and resources. Federal per-pupil spending rose by an inflation-adjusted 375% between 1970 and 2010.” Moreover, state and local school spending tripled between 1970 and 2005. Riley goes on to note that by the 2004-5 school year, America’s highest-poverty school districts had revenues virtually equal to the revenues in the lowest-poverty districts.

However, maybe the economic and educational status of individual black parents has some transformative power? Echoing the late Nigerian-American anthropologist John U. Ogbu (author of Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement) –- who uncovered the term “acting white” for blacks who were disparaged because they prized learning — Riley shows that the black-white achievement gap persists even when black students hail from upper class homes or have college-educated parents in the home.

Then maybe it is because we are not spending enough of our prodigious education resources on hiring more of those with the greatest potential to move the academic needle, teachers. Alas, as Harvard professor Paul E. Peterson noted in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, since the 1960s per-pupil US education spending has more than tripled after adjusting for inflation, while the number of students per teacher has fallen by one-third.

Clearly, lack of money and resources, racism and poverty – while still a sad reality for many African-American students nearly 57 years since the crisis at Central High — are no longer the root causes of black academic underachievement. Moreover, it seems that, with some notorious exceptions, most at-risk students in America are experiencing a healthy teacher-student ratio.

Yet, the black-white achievement gap refuses to budge. As Professor Ogbu told the New York Times, ”No matter how you reform schools, it’s not going to solve the problem. There are two parts of the problem, society and schools on one hand and the black community on the other hand.”

Fortunately, we can make small, steady improvement in this dire state of affairs while we await an intellectual sea change in black homes, communities and broader culture. In subsequent posts, I will examine those practical solutions, plus outlier schools that are bucking the trend by engineering vast improvements in black academic achievement.

In the meantime, let me know what you think in the Comments area below.

James Crotty has been an educator for 37 years: teacher (LaGuardia Coll.), coach (Columbia, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Eagle), administrator (New Mex Acad.). To learn more, visit crottyskids.com

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