To close achievement gap, focus on social justice

Is it possible to close the achievement gap without an assessment of the impact of institutional racism and structural inequities on education policy and practice?

Clearly money and legislative action – whether federal, as in No Child Left Behind, or state, as in the settlement action due to Sheff v. O’Neill – alone or together have not been able to reverse Connecticut’s race to the bottom in education achievement and attainment for its poor and minority students.

Our lack of success in closing the achievement gap is rooted in our inability to courageously answer the question of why it exists in the first place.

Policy makers and education practitioners must evaluate their beliefs; critically evaluate decision-making processes, the delivery of educational services and instruction through a social justice lens.

Policy makers and education practitioners have access to a reliable body of research that identifies specific systemic practices that create and exacerbate academic inequities.

One research study evaluated whether poverty was a determining factor in the performance of black students on the Minnesota Basic Standards Test. Researchers found that test scores were not statistically related to school poverty, neighborhood poverty, racial concentration, or even ranking of schools (except in the case of whites).

However, for both white students and students of color, success on the tests was positively correlated to how an individual had been tracked in school. Under a system of tracking many children do not get access to a curriculum that is consistent with a state’s standards but must take the state’s mandated standardized test which assumes the children had such access.

Noted researcher Claude M. Steele, now the twenty-first Provost of Columbia University (first African-American to hold this post), as well as a professor of psychology, sought to examine the circumstances that contribute to the gap in test scores.

While at Stanford University, Steele conducted research and developed the theory of stereotype threat. In one particular study equal numbers of highly successful African-American and white Stanford sophomores were given a 30-minute standardized test. Half of the students were told that the test did not assess ability, but that the research was aimed at “understanding the psychological factors involved in solving verbal problems”. Within this group African-American students did as well as whites on the test.

The other students were told that the test was a valid measure of academic ability and capacity. Within this group African-American students scored significantly lower than whites on the test. Whites performed the same in both situations. As Steele explains it, black students know they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability therefore they experience psychological intimidation that undermines their ability – even when their competence has been clearly demonstrated. The threat of the perception of having an inherent inferiority significantly stunts their performance. Groups not stereotyped in this way do not experience this extra intimidation making more of their mental capacity available for learning and performing assigned tasks, including taking standardized exams.

Pedro Noguera, urban sociologist and professor of education at New York University sums it up this way: “For many children, schools play an important role in shaping their racial identities… To the extent that a school’s sorting process disproportionately relegates Black and Brown children to spaces that are perceived as negative and marginal, it is likely that children will come to perceive certain activities and courses as racially defined and therefore either suitable or off limits for them.”

The combination of tracking – which limits children’s educational opportunities framing their sense of self as underachievers – and stereotype threat creates a toxic stew of injustice that perpetuates the under-education and under achievement of students of color. The effects of this injustice and inequity are life-long and painfully visible.

As I see it, we cannot close the achievement gap without a systemic evaluation of how our public schools are affected by institutional racism. We need to take a candid look at the practices that limit academic opportunities and the psychosocial development of children of color in our public schools. There are a few good research-based methods and able practitioners that have assisted school districts in precisely this kind of social justice work with astounding success. Districts seriously committed to closing the achievement-gap should begin with an equity audit of the policies and practices used in their schools. It is time that we intentionally bend that arc toward justice for our children.

Doreen Richardson of Windsor is a parent and a member of the Windsor Board of Education.