Racial Gap in Student Achievement Could Be Cultural Bias, School Leaders Say

Melissa Navas, The Oregonian, July 23, 2009

A group of Latino boys gathers in a hallway, laughing and being loud. To one staff member, flags go up: gang activity. But the same staff member ignores a group of white boys shouting at the same decibel level.

Down the hall, a teacher skips over a black student raising her hand in class because she doesn’t think the student knows the answer to a math equation.

These cultural biases have their ripple effects in the classroom, showing up in higher test scores for white students and more discipline referrals for students of color. The so-called “racial achievement gap” has become even more apparent since federal No Child Left Behind laws passed in 2001 force districts to disaggregate their achievement data based on subcategories, including race, poverty and language ability. Schools are held accountable for academic growth of students in each group.

In 2007, national reading and math assessments showed white students outperformed black, Latino and Native American students by between 20 to 30 percentage points. Asian students were a percentage point higher than white students in reading and 8 percentage points higher in math.

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Two years ago, Tigard-Tualatin School District contracted with a California company specializing in addressing systemic issues of inequity. The work has allowed the 12,700-student district to focus on disparities in their own racial achievement gap, which averages between 20 and 40 percentage points in middle and high schools.

The district also found discipline variations suggesting that school staff were sending more students of color to the office rather than back to the classroom, and imposing more punishments on them than white students.

“What is it about our system that is causing these results?” said Carla Randall, director of curriculum and instruction.

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Tigard-Tualatin administrators and some staff have met for two years in behind-the-scenes discussions about how to solve the district’s racial inequities. The staff, which is 90 percent white, explores their own potential biases, considers the experiences of minority students and examines how the education system may give preferential treatment to white students.

Next year, the conversation moves from staff training to the classroom where trainers will provide guidance to teachers in considering students’ cultures and making sure that their lessons are inclusive of students of color. Eventually, district leaders plan to include students in the conversation.

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Changing demographics

In Oregon, racial demographics are shifting rapidly.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of foreign-born immigrants living in Oregon has more than tripled to about 367,000 people. And between 1998 and 2008, the number of minority students in Oregon schools increased 80 percent to 168,000.

Tigard-Tualatin’s minority population has more than doubled in the last decade. The largest influx is Latino students, who grew from about 9 percent in 1999 to 19 percent, or 2,400 students, today.

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Tigard-Tualatin’s white students outperform most other student groups particularly in middle and high school reading and math assessments. For instance, in high school math, white students are 30 to 40 percentage points higher than black and Latino students. In high school reading, white students were between 14 and 44 percentage points higher than Asian, black and Latino students.

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Despite more rigorous standards nationwide, the achievement gap hasn’t shrunk because all students groups have made gains in recent years, allowing the gap to persist.

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Tigard-Tualatin’s rollout of the program is intentionally slow so most parents and students won’t see visible changes in classrooms, Randall said. Some administrators said the process takes time because participants must first examine their own assumed biases and cultural backgrounds.

Jeff Smith, principal at Tualatin High School, said the discussions on race have been some of the best professional development in his 31 years as an educator. He said he’s gained empathy about what it’s like to be “born into a world where there’s certainly more privilege to be white than a person of color.”

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Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University and author of several books including “Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools,” said it’s important for educators and school staff to carefully include students in discussions about race. If a conversation backfires, an environment can become so charged, that paralysis could kick in, he said.

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