Sunday, August 16, 2009

What I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science (Part 8): Achievement Gap History and Causes

This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:

#3)“The history and causes of the achievement gap”

In the early stages of the application process to Teach For America, I was given a few articles to read about the achievement gap in anticipation of discussing them during a phone interview. For me, it was a subtle beginning to learning more about what the achievement gap entailed, and why different subgroups of students reach such different levels of academic achievement and success. My opinions on the causes of these gaps changed as I experienced more of teaching, and thus learning more of the history of achievement gaps in education seemed an important step to learning how to approach these gaps.


The Coleman Report

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, with the intent to end racial segregation in society. Part of this legislation required that a survey be conducted of the educational opportunities available to Americans, to determine the lack of availability of such opportunities based on race, class and gender.

Shortly after, in 1966, the Equality of Educational Opportunity Study (EEOS) was released, also referred to as the “Coleman Report,” after its principal investigator James S. Coleman. The study focused on measuring student outcomes, a new idea in education research, to determine at what level students were actually learning. The conclusions were damning: large achievement disparities existed between Black and White students that schools were unable to close, and despite it being more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” most schools remained segregated along racial lines.

“The achievement disparities the report documented were troublingly large. In 6th grade, the authors found, the average African-American 6th grader lagged 1.9 years behind his or her white counterpart. By 12th grade, the statistics suggested, the average gap had widened to nearly four years.

As expected, the report also showed that black children typically attended schools that were more poorly equipped than those attended by whites. They had less access to physics, chemistry, and language laboratories, for instance, and fewer books per pupil.”

The existence of an achievement gap along racial lines was more or less realized. At the time, student achievement was linked largely to family backgrounds and “a student's sense of control over his or her own destiny,” but having good teachers also correlated with increased student achievement, particularly for Black students. Recently, more in-depth analysis of the data collected by Coleman accentuated the impact of schools and teacher biases on this achievement gap:

“Even after taking into account students’ family background, a large proportion of the variation in student achievement can be explained by school characteristics. Fully 40% of the differences in student achievement can be found between schools.


Inequalities in student achievement within schools are explained in part by teachers’ biases favoring middle-class students and by schools’ greater reliance on academic and nonacademic tracking."


Success and failure in closing the gap

Following the Coleman Report, school desegregation efforts intensified, and these achievement gaps narrowed over the next couple decades, but the narrowing eventually stalled in the late 1980s:

“In the decades following the report’s publication there was a dramatic drop in school segregation in the Southern U.S. There also was a significant decline in the proportion of Black students attending 90-100% minority schools in the nation as a whole. But the gains in desegregation peaked in the 1980s and were practically reversed in the 1990s. ”

Gains made in closing these achievement gaps up until the 1990s may have been caused by the increased efforts of schools to desegregate and a national push for racial integration. One study suggested that the integration of hospitals and better access to quality healthcare for Black children contributed to this effect:

“We test one such explanation, which we call the infant health hypothesis. This hypothesis states that an improvement in black infant health during the mid- to late-1960’s had long-term effects on human capital accumulation for the cohorts that experienced these improvements. ...The specific timing across states suggests that improvements in infant health in the first 1.5 to 2.5 years of life had long-term effects on human capital accumulation and explain a significant portion of the narrowing of the black-white test score gap during the 1980’s. ”

Another hypothesis explains that the narrowing of these achievement gaps in the 1980s may have been caused in part by the narrowing socioeconomic gap between Black and White families that occurred at the same time, which also stalled during the 1990s:

“Black-White gaps in socioeconomic and family conditions continuously narrowed from the 1970s through the 1990s, but that this narrowing slowed down in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The acceleration of a narrowing of the Black- White gap in socioeconomic and family conditions in the 1970s and early 1980s parallels a significant drop in the Black-White achievement gap during the same period. Moreover, the deceleration of the narrowing of the Black-White gaps in socioeconomic and family conditions since the late 1980s coincides with a flattening of the achievement gap since that time. Because achievement and socioeconomic conditions covary without any time lag, it appears that they are related to each other.”

Notwithstanding the reduction of the Black-White achievement gap throughout the 1970s and 1980s and the possible explanations for the slowing of these academic gains, the achievement gap endured throughout the 1990s and even widened by some measures:

“In 1990, however, black-white convergence in educational attainment stopped. “Among men and women ages 26 to 30 in 2000, the black-white educational attainment gap is slightly larger than the corresponding gap in 1990,” he said.

Scores on standardized tests follow a similar pattern. “From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, black children made striking gains in achievement while scores for white children remained relatively flat,” Neal said, but test score gaps among 9- and 13-year-olds stopped closing in the late 1980s.

Other measures of trends in educational achievement since 1990 tell the same story. Among 21- year old black men, high school graduation rates were lower in the late 1990s than they were in the mid- 1980s. The opposite is true among young white men. Further, the ratio of white to black college graduation rates among young adult men rose between 1990 and 2000 after falling for decades.”

To place these events into context, it was during the 1980s when the culture of standards-based reform became widespread, as I've discussed before. This movement, along with the subsequent debates over state and federal roles in education that ensued throughout the 1990s, succeeded in firmly taking root not because of specific disparities between subgroups of student achievement, but mainly because of underperforming student achievement as a whole, something “A Nation At Risk” had warned of. Businesses helped lead the movement to ensure that future workers would acquire necessary reading and computational skills in schools, since at the time many companies were funding remedial programs for workers to learn what they hadn't yet learned. These efforts created positive change in our schools, but were not specific to any achievement gap.

Throughout this history, despite correlations between lower academic achievement of students of color and fewer opportunities for challenging classes, less rigorous curricula, and more inexperienced and ineffective teachers (cite), there have been assertions that biology plays some part in these achievement gaps.

The eugenics movement of the 1930s along with faulty statistical analysis of I.Q. test scores and standardized test scores in 1969 and again in 1994 gave rise to assertions of a biological basis for the disparities in student achievement, as people of color were supposedly genetically (and culturally) inferior to White people (p. 228). Claims like these have been discredited, but the racist undertones of their impact is lasting.


The “Education Debt” and how it creates achievement gaps

It is worthwhile to keep the above framework of some of the history and causes of the achievement gap in mind, particularly when the million-dollar question in education today is, “How do we close the achievement gap?”

Gloria Ladson-Billings argues that focusing on the current achievement gap alone to define the disparities of our education system does not address the long-term circumstances that initially engendered the gaps. She briefly delves into an economics example, explaining that the national debt, the sum total of all government debts obtained to finance previous annual budget deficits, cannot be solved by simply balancing the budget. A national debt continues to accrue interest payments even during a budget surplus. Using this analogy, Ladson-Billings refers to an “education debt” that requires an historical perspective to understand, and how achievement gaps are just the logical outcomes of such an education debt.

Ladson-Billings asserts that this education debt has been created by historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral decisions and policies made in our nation's past. To summarize:

Historical Debt: Race, class and gender initially prompted educational inequities. Slavery and segregation, forced assimilation and exclusion from educational opportunities, legal apartheid, all remnants of our history that contributed to the education system we have today. That Black students in the South did not see universal secondary schooling until 1968 is only one example of how rather recently this history existed (and in some cases continues to exist) and how it shapes our education debt.

Economic Debt: Funding disparities between urban and suburban schools have always existed, the result of an education system with seperately run schools and districts. It is a telling fact that there is a strong correlation between school funding and the percentage of White students at a school, even if not a causal link. Median incomes of Black males also still remain less than that of White males, adding another factor in how families occupy varying socioeconomic positions and thus varying access to higher-quality education.

Sociopolitical Debt: Minority communities have been historically excluded from the civic process, from authentic opportunities to create positive change in their schools and communities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 drastically improved the lot of minority communities looking for positive changes in local schools, but afterward and even today there are still obstacles to these communities exercising political power, such as limited access to lawyers and legislators compared to their White counterparts.

Moral Debt: People of color have historically experienced barriers to social advancement and educational opportunities, and this exclusion creates a moral debt that the nation has for oppressed communities. While it can be argued that individuals simply ought to take personal responsibility for their plight, a democracy such as ours hinges on ideals of social responsibility, of extending a helping hand to those most in need, particularly when the oppression had been caused by its own policies.

Ladson-Billings states that this education debt is accruing its own kind of interest, or “the distrust and suspicion about what schools can and will do in communities serving the poor and children of color.” Knowing that we need educators and communities working together with mutual respect and trust, our education debt and our nation's history should be a prime focus when considering how to close the achievement gap.


The achievement gap today and tomorrow

Although progress has been made in closing these gaps, achievement disparities persist. In July, the NAEP released a report summarizing the performance of Black and White students on national and state assessments in reading and mathematics at different time points between 1978 and 2007. Here are some of its findings:

Mathematics score gaps for [both 9- and 13-year-old] Black and White students were narrower in 2004 than in the first assessment in 1978, as scores of Black students showed a greater increase than those of White students. The gaps in 2004 were not significantly different from the gaps in 1999. (p. 6)

Average mathematics scores were higher in 2007 than in 1990 for both Black and White eighth-graders. The 31-point gap in 2007 was not significantly different from the 33-point gap in 1990. (p. 7)

The Black-White mathematics gap among the nation’s public school fourth-graders was narrower in 2007 than in 1992, as Black students’ scores showed a greater gain than White students’ scores. (p. 14)

The [Reading] score gap [for 9-year-olds] in 2004 did not differ significantly from the gap in 1980, but was narrower than the gap in 1999, due to a greater increase in Black students’ scores as compared to White students. At age 13, reading scores for ... Black students were higher in 2004 than in 1980, resulting in a narrowing of the gap. (p. 28)

The reading gap for Black and White fourth-graders narrowed in 2007 in comparison to both 1992 and 2005. Although scores for both Black and White students were higher in 2007 than in either comparison year, a greater increase in scores for Black students caused the gap to narrow. The 27-point gap in 2007 was narrower than in any previous assessment year except 1998. (p. 29)

The national eighth-grade reading gap has not changed since either 1992 or 1998. ... From 1998 to 2007, the Black-White score gap did not change for any state. (p. 44)

The report is a mixed-bag of results, with certain gains being made toward closing gaps at one grade level but not the other, and alternating successes in math and reading. Still, the successes measured do show progress since the Coleman Report was first released, even if there is still a lot more work to be done.


A better understanding of the achievement gap and the history that has created it (our “education debt”) needs to be the goal for our citizenship if we still value justice and the ideal of a land of opportunity, as a long-term solution to the achievement gap, where equal educational opportunities for all truly exists, will require that all of the nuances of its history be fully realized.

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