Puzzling Racial Gap

Robert Frahm, Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, October 7, 2007

A generation ago, Bloomfield was heralded as the all-American community. Blacks and whites lived side by side, chasing the American dream of middle-class stability without regard to skin color. There were trimmed lawns and good schools.

Now, Bloomfield operates one of the most racially segregated school systems in the state. Minority students, mainly black children, account for 95 percent of public school enrollment.

And when results were released recently on the state’s annual 10th-grade achievement test, this quiet, middle-class suburb found itself confronting a question more often associated with the nation’s poorest urban school systems:

Why do black and Hispanic students lag so far behind their white counterparts?

Bloomfield’s 10th-graders posted some of the worst results in the state on the annual test of reading, writing, mathematics and science. In a district that had made modest gains in recent years, students this year missed state goals in startling numbers. The results sparked one question after another:

Is it a one-time anomaly?

Is it the exodus of top students to private schools?

Is it a growing number of poor children in the public schools?

Or—in a school system that consists almost entirely of minority students—is it somehow rooted in more profound racial and cultural differences?

Most educators agree that poverty is a powerful underlying cause of the achievement gap. But as experts look at places like Bloomfield, some say that race and culture—apart from income—appear to influence achievement in ways that are not always easily understood.

“The gap is as large among children of the highly educated as it is among the children of the poor,” said Harvard University Professor [of public policy] Ronald F. Ferguson, who has conducted extensive studies on the achievement gap.

Lesser Expectations

Poverty is without argument a key factor in academic problems plaguing black and Hispanic children in tough urban centers such as Hartford and Bridgeport.

But the achievement gap also occurs among minority students in middle-class and wealthy suburbs.

On a 2005 nationwide reading test, the gap between black and white high school seniors whose parents were college graduates actually was larger than the gap between blacks and whites whose parents had not finished high school.

Why?

It is one of the most confounding questions confronting America’s schools, and Bloomfield is hardly alone.

Sometimes the problem is obscured. At upscale Hall High School in nearby West Hartford, for example, overall test results appeared good this year, but a closer look shows that only 16 percent of black sophomores met the state math goal, compared with 74 percent of white sophomores.

Some experts believe the problem is largely one of expectations—that schools demand less from minority students and channel them into less rigorous courses.

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Cultural Gaps

Ferguson, the Harvard professor, said he believes other factors, such as family background, cultural differences and child-rearing practices among families of different races can contribute to the achievement gap.

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And, he said, figures from a federal survey indicate that black kindergartners, including those whose mothers are highly educated, have fewer books in their homes than white children do.

Exactly how any of these factors affect achievement is a matter of debate and—as with most matters involving race—issues such as differing family backgrounds can be difficult to confront openly.

“Achievement gaps are not facts of nature,” Ferguson said in an interview published in the Harvard Education Letter last year. “They are mostly because of differences in life experience. We’ve got to figure out how to get all kids the kinds of experiences that really maximize access to middle-class skills.”

In that interview, Ferguson was asked whether focusing on lifestyle factors isn’t just a way of blaming the victim. He responded that his motivation is not to assign blame but simply to find ways to reduce the achievement gap.

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Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, said the issue is complex. He said it is clear “there is a substantial amount of evidence that black parents want to see their kids succeed in school.”

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Another possible factor affecting achievement, Ferguson said, was the rise of an urban youth culture, including hip-hop and rap music, in the late 1980s and early 1990s—about the same time that progress on closing the achievement gap halted.

Across the nation, black and Hispanic students made dramatic academic gains and narrowed the gap throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but progress halted about 1988, and the gap has remained wide since then, Ferguson said.

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The Poverty Theory

The answer to understanding Bloomfield’s achievement gap also may lie in the town’s changing fortunes.

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While Bloomfield’s overall median family income grew substantially during the 1990s, the median income of families with children in public schools slipped, according to the state Department of Education. By 1999, the median income for families with children in public schools was $53,448, well below the town’s overall median family income of $64,892, according to U.S. Census figures.

“Bloomfield has affluence, but it also has people living on the border of Hartford on Blue Hills Avenue,” said James Michel, a school board member and the father of two sons in the school system. He believes the town’s scholastic problems are rooted in poverty.

“I really think race has nothing to do with it, absolutely zero,” Michel said. “Economics are the biggest reason they are falling behind.”

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The school system also may be losing some of its top students. About 15 percent of the town’s school-age children attend private schools, well above the 10 percent statewide average. Another 19 percent attend alternative public schools such as magnet and charter schools.

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Tackling the Problem

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Superintendent of Schools David Title speculates that this year’s results may be a temporary setback—the result of a sophomore class that had a history of low performance on previous standardized tests.

Title has asked for an item-by-item analysis of the test results.

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On the latest test, boys had far worse scores than girls, especially in reading and writing, the Bloomfield results show. Of more than 160 sophomores who took the state test last spring, only three—all girls—met state goals in all four subjects.

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Another ongoing issue in Bloomfield is the steady stream of new arrivals to the schools, including some with limited language skills and educational backgrounds, he said. Of the students who took last spring’s 10th-grade test, as many as one-third had arrived in the school system after eighth-grade, he said.

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bloomfield

Ronald Ferguson: “Achievement gaps are not facts of nature.”

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