During the new millennium, the United States faces a vital challenge—the challenge of closing the academic achievement gap between Caucasian and minority students, specifically, students of African-American and Hispanic backgrounds.
Reading and math performance of minority students must be improved in order to support graduation from high school and university attendance or success in vocational and trade schools. The challenge is huge, but the goal is within reach if parents, teachers, school districts, politicians and communities all work together in a concentrated, ongoing effort.
In the year 2000, on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reading and math assessments, 28 percent more Caucasian than African-American fourth-graders scored at the proficient level in reading, and 29 percent more Caucasian than African-American fourth-graders scored at the proficient level in math. Yet, at the same time, a report by the Education Trust, “Dispelling the Myth Revisited,” stated that almost 5,000 schools with high-poverty and/or high minority student populations scored in the top third of all schools in their states.
Poor and minority students can and do achieve at very high levels. Our challenge is to make that reality across the nation. Here’s 10 things we can do to get closer to closing the achievement gap.
1. Community members, with or without children of their own, must attend school board meetings. The only way to know what is happening in schools is to visit school sites and attend school board meetings regularly. Members of the community are offered opportunities to address the school board and encourage positive changes and responsible decision making. Some community members may wish to run for a position on the school board (an elected position) and affect the process of change more directly.
2. Create a climate of high expectations. All schools must function with a strong sense of purpose and an integrated effort by all members of the community (often called stakeholders) to promote academic success for all students. Publicize educational improvements and successes to the public through street banners, news articles, local TV announcements, pictures of events and awards ceremonies.
Many research studies have found that students not exposed to rigorous courses do not perform as well as students who take rigorous classes. Generally, minority students are underrepresented in advanced placement courses and overrepresented in special education. This starts in elementary school and continues through high school. Some researchers are concerned that schools may be contributing to the achievement gap by placing more emphasis on multicultural curriculums than on advanced program placement. So, while including multicultural curricula is important, it must be within an academically rigorous curriculum. The school board must be held accountable by the community to make sure this happens.
Teachers’ expectations have a significant impact on student achievement. Low teacher expectations result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e.; significant achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students. Solving this problem is not easy. Ongoing teacher training is important. Assessing teachers’ attitudes prior to employment is recommended. In addition, hiring minority teachers must also be a top priority. The community must demand that these procedures are followed by the school board and school district administrators.
3. Provide an academically challenging, multicultural curriculum. Biculturalism, and teachers’ lack of understanding of African-American culture, can limit high academic achievement. Research focused on the implications of biculturalism on high academic achievement has defined a deficit model. In such a model, the mismatch between school language and the language of students helps create the achievement gap. Caucasian teachers find it difficult to understand the logic of African-American language patterns/vocabulary/linguistic traditions and cannot teach students effectively. Misunderstandings often occur in classrooms when teachers use an indirect communicative and teaching style with African-American students.
In addition, Ogbu (1987) and Fordham (1988) wrote that African-American students may have an oppositional attitude toward school because they believe that using school language is the same as “acting white” and, therefore, denying their own language and culture, “selling out.” How and what language(s) are used in school must be addressed by the community if African-American students are to be successful.
A decline in leisure reading among minority students has been accompanied by a decline in reading scores. (Ferguson, 1998; Osborne, 1998) Leisure reading programs must be incorporated into the curriculum and parents must get involved in their implementation and promotion in the community.
4. The community must provide supplementary academic programs for all children, not just underachievers. Studies have shown that the lack of academic programs during summer vacation negatively impacts the academic success of poor children. Children from higher socio-economic backgrounds participate in learning activities during the summer, while poor children do not.
Overtime, the lack of learning opportunities during summertime can have a strong negative effect on the progress of African-American children. Communities must implement more supplementary after-school, weekend, and summer academic programs on a for-profit and nonprofit basis to help African-American students and promote cultural and artistic talent. Year-round special classes and learning activities, and camps should be available not just to struggling students, but also to average and above average students.
The community should also use Black History Month to promote academic success and provide role models of academic achievers, not just athletes and entertainers. It can use programs of other cultural organizations (e.g., the NAACP) to recognize the academic achievements of African-American students.
5. Provide mentors for “at-risk” students. Since many African-American boys lack strong male role models in the home, mentoring programs are extremely important. Involve local police and sheriffs in these programs to create positive interactions between African-American students and local law enforcement personnel.
6. Provide preschool education for all children aged 3 to 5. Research has shown that the lack of high quality, preschool education is a factor that contributes to the achievement gap. Many minority children start school less prepared academically than Caucasian students. Only about 63 percent of African-American and 37 percent of Hispanic children participate in preschool programs.
7. Involve high school students in community activities and service. This creates more positive interactions with the community and a better understanding of mainstream society among minority students. It also creates opportunities for paid employment. Because of this, every community agency and business should be involved in this effort.
8. Provide food, clothing and school supplies for families who are poor. Children cannot focus on academic achievement if they are hungry, cold, or lack the necessary school supplies.
9. Solve problems that create school attendance difficulties, such as dangerous intersections, lack of sidewalks, high speed traffic, and things that scare or threaten kids traveling to and from school. Combine these efforts with a carefully planned and fully staffed truancy program to make sure kids are in school every day.
10. Promote alcohol and drug free community events and activities while also discouraging gang activity. Every community needs a written, detailed plan for dealing with these issues that requires the participation of all community agencies, law enforcement groups, businesses, school personnel, and parents.