Tag Archives: The Black and White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped

America’s Racial Achievement Gap and the Toxic Mantra of ‘Can’t’

by Christopher Paslay

It’s time to stop telling minority students they “can’t,” and start instilling the skills and values of “can.”

The notion that black and Latino students can’t compete with white and Asian students in school is gaining national momentum.  Amazingly, this attitude isn’t coming from crazy right wing conservatives or Tea Party zombies (conservatives and Tea Party members actually lobby for a colorblind society where the divisive politics of race, such as affirmative action, are finally removed once and for all), but from civil rights groups and so called “social justice” advocates who claim to have the best interests of minorities in mind.

The Florida Board of Education is currently holding minority students to lower standards by stating that 74 percent of blacks, 81 percent of Hispanics, 88 percent of whites and 90 percent of Asians should be reading at grade level by 2018.  Last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, along with a coalition of other educational and civil rights groups, filed a federal complaint attempting to lower the admission standards of eight elite New York City schools claiming the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is too difficult and discriminates against black and Latino students; the reading portion of SHSAT requires students to write in coherent paragraphs, use logical reasoning to answer questions, and analyze text; and the math portion requires knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, probability, statistics, geometry, and trigonometry.

The notion that minority students “can’t,” promoted under the guise of social justice, has infiltrated 21st century public education in many ways.  In addition to admissions tests being “discriminatory,” minorities can’t compete with whites and Asians because they are being unfairly diagnosed as emotionally disturbed (there is little documented evidence of actual misdiagnosis); are being unfairly disciplined and suspended (actual cases of racial discrimination by public school officials are practically non existent); are being “pushed-out” of schools (not a single school administrator has ever been prosecuted for forcing a child out); are faced with conscious or unconscious racial discrimination by school teachers (nary a documented case exists); lack money and funds (hundreds of billions of dollars have been pumped into schools in poor and disadvantaged communities since 1965 via Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act); and of course, the trickle-down effects of slavery (which officially ended in America over 149 years ago, on January 1st, 1863).

How much these issues are impacting the educations of minorities is debatable.  But one thing is clear: these ideas are being repeatedly communicated to minority students (and their parents) as to why they can’t compete with their white and Asian peers; these issues also seek extrinsic solutions (which students have no personal control over) rather than focusing on the intrinsic values and behaviors they can control.

In 2010, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), headquartered in Princeton, NJ, issued a policy information a report titled “The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped.”  The report highlighted two periods in the fight to close the racial achievement gap in America: a period of progress from the Civil Rights Movement to the 1980s when the achievement gap between black and white students was cut in half; and a period of stagnation from the late 1980’s to the present when the achievement gap leveled off and in some cases, widened.

The first period, the one marked by significant progress, was most likely the result of desegregating schools and upgrading conditions for minorities.  Suffocating racial discrimination and the bogus notion of “separate but equal” was tackled and for the first time gave many minorities access to equal educational resources, such as books, clean schools, rigorous curriculum, qualified teachers, etc.  For the most part, systematic inequalities were corrected, helping minorities gain valuable ground on their white peers; this progress continued steadily for several decades.

But in the late 1980s, something happened.  The achievement gap in America stopped closing.  This perplexed many education advocates because it was around this time that the multicultural education and social justice movements started to bloom.  The ETS report cites disappearing fathers, the decline of the nuclear family, concentrated deprivation, nutrition, and mobility issues as reasons for the stop in progress.

But there is a larger trend that explains why the gap has stopped closing: social justice advocates and civil rights groups have been placing too big of an emphasis on systematic change and not enough emphasis on individual transformation.  And why not?  For nearly 30 years, fighting for changing the system worked wonders (as noted above).  Tragically, however, it appears that this mode of operation is no longer garnishing the same kind of results.  Advocating for societal change appears to have hit its peak in terms of educational achievement 25 years ago.  That’s not to say it’s time to end the fight to bring equity to the system; the system still has room for improvement.

But there is a very large, relatively unexplored approach for closing the achievement gap, and that is through personal empowerment.  Personal empowerment, as in the mantra “you are the captain of your own ship,” rather than the message that “you are a victim of paralyzing curcumstances.”  It is the idea of keeping high standards through “yes, you can,” rather than employing low expectations through “can’t, can’t, can’t.”

All change is self-change.  Until civil rights groups and social justice advocates embrace this reality, America’s racial achievement gap will remain frozen in time.

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