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.

4 thoughts on “America’s Racial Achievement Gap and the Toxic Mantra of ‘Can’t’

  1. All I have to say is this. My parents were Holocaust Survivors and didn’t spend their entire lives speaking about how they and their families and I was a victim. No one ever said to me that I was entitled to any special treatment due to the fact that my entire family was persecuted, shot, had their homes taken, heads shaven, whipped, burned in ovens. I was told that I had a great opportunity to do better than my family. They told me that unfortunately they couldn’t do as much as I was able to accomplish and I should try my best to go to school and make something special of myself!!
    I have been teaching for 20+ years and have never told anyone that they can’t!!! But I know that parents, society, TV, Internet…can make people feel hopeless and helpless at times. And believe me, living with Holocaust survivors was not the most “functional” of families. I have felt hopeless to, but it was teachers that got me going…Good Educators…
    Where do I see the issue??? I clearly see the issue as coming from ADULTS!!! Adults who carry their own baggage of insecurity, entitlement, racism…Call it what you wish. I have “kept it real” as my many students have taught me for years…And the perpetrators can be of any race , ethnic group or financial status.
    Teachers need to MODEL success. Leaders need to MODEL compassion.
    Schools need to be Multicultural NOT segregated so we all learn together not APART!!! How can we label people who are learning with us..helping each other..making the same grades…and getting the SAME SUPPORTS!!!

    The day we ADULTS who are making all of these decisions GROW UP and really look at the careers we’ve chosen, and take our jobs to HEART.
    The kids will TOO…and we won’t even need to worry about achievement differences…they will naturally work it out. BUT IT MEANS HARD WORK FOR THE ADULTS!!! AND I DON’T KNOW MANY WHO REALLY WANT TO DO IT 😦 Money has become more important than children in Education now…” How much money can a school get for a Reg. Ed/ Sp. Ed Student. AND HOW MUCH TIME HAS TO PASS BEFORE WE ARE NOT HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR THAT MONEY??? How sad is that????????

    I have some great ideas about the transformation of urban education…just ask…I’m ready!!! Thanks for giving us a forum to speak our minds about such controversial yet important topics!!!

    Until Next Time. 🙂

  2. Chris,

    I agree with you. We should always expect and demand the best from all of our students. I did that when I taught. No excuses on this. I do not like lowering standards.

    But and there is always a but.

    Apparently according the NTY article NYC specialized HS’s are the only ones in the country to use one single test. I would be curious as to how the admissions in our specialized HS’s works.

    I also know from my experience working with struggling readers from all income levels- suburban, urban, private, parochial and public schools -that many kids who struggle to read at age 5 also struggle with standardized tests. Why, I am not sure. Their early weak reading skills hurt vocabulary development and language skills and writing skills. With our current reading practices many of these issues are never addressed with these students. They can work hard but their standardized tests scores will lag behind their efforts. I have seen this over and over again.

    I have a niece who needed help learning to read. She has parents who are both teachers. She has had all the help one would need to succeed. Her HS grade point average is 4.4. She works extremely hard but yet she struggles to scores as high on the SAT’s as she would like. She wants to go to top colleges and is afraid the SAT score will hurt her chances.

    So for me scoring high on one test, even with good student effort, good parents etc, is not a sure thing.

    According to the article this issue was first raised in 1971 so this is a long term problem, not a new problem.

    My question- what do we do? We have large groups of kids who are not doing well in school and not getting into these specialized HS’s. Many come from poor backgrounds. I don’t see poverty disappearing any time soon. Schools and teachers and administrators must come to grips with the problem. My assessment from my experience is that much but not all of the problem is in the instruction. I also think low expectations do play into this problem.

    I think some of these kids do need extra programs and extra help and this does costs money. I read about one of these programs in the local paper a week or so ago. A teacher started some type of summer reading program and was having success with charter school kids. I saw a report on CBS news a few weeks ago about a private group using musical instruments as way to help students succeed in schools. All good solutions and all long term. There is no quick fix.

    When my husband attended Central HS the IQ score was used as one of the admission standards. That is no longer true. That one score is not so easy to change and I am sure kept many students out of the school that may have done well. I prefer a more comprehensive admission standard.

    I think the people who push for changes in standards are desperate to change things for poor students. They have seen this problem for years and are tired of waiting for the schools to fix it. Yes the parents need to help but it is the job of the schools to educate their students. If they have such large groups that are not learning then we have a problem. We have to solve it and not hope that society changes. It is good to hope and ask for those things but chances of large scale change is very low. If we don’t at least try we just lose more and more kids to crime and unemployment.


    • Hi Kathy,

      Well said. I agree with you–teachers and schools must fight the good fight with correct methods of instruction to reach and teach these kids. And it shouldn’t stop with academics; we must work to improve values and attitudes.

      Thanks for the passionate and detailed response.


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