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Closing the Achievement Gap:
Racial Inequality and The Unfinished Legacy
of Civil Rights in America

by Pedro A. Noguera
New York, New York

America expects a lot from its frequently maligned public schools, and with the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB), we have demanded even more. Under NCLB, schools are expected to produce evidence that all children are learning (as measured by their performance on standardized tests) and eliminate the so-called “achievement gap”. Support for the laudable goals of NCLB has produced a coalition of strange bedfellows, most notably, conservative President George W. Bush and liberal legislative sponsors of the law Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman George Miller. Even national civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the National Council de la Raza have embraced NCLB. Such unusual bi-partisn support is the primary reason why even with Democratic control over Congress major changes in the law are not expected. Many liberals and conservatives like the idea of holding public schools accountable for raising student achievement. For President Bush in particular, who has called upon schools to “End the soft bigotry of low expectations”, NCLB has held up as the clearest proof (critics might say the only sign) that he is committed to civil rights.

Yet, anyone who spends time in our nation’s public schools, particularly those that serve poor children, is forced to recognize that while the goals of NCLB may be laudable, they are also laughable under present circumstances. In most cities, public schools are expected to educate the neediest children, and they are blamed when students whose most basic needs for housing, nutrition and healthcare are not met. In most cases, such children do not do as well academically as more privileged children and the reasons why are obvious. Our politicians want schools that will enable the United States to maintain its economic and technological dominance in the world, even though we continue to pay teachers salaries that make it unlikely that our top college students will enter the profession. They complain when our students do considerably less well on international tests than children in other wealthy nations, but they are not willing to do the things the nations we like to compare ourselves to do for their children – universal access to healthcare and pre-school, and generous parental leave policies. We expect schools to provide students with the knowledge, understanding and frame of mind to participate intelligently in civic life, but increasingly under NCLB the school curriculum has become so narrowly focused on preparing students for state mandated exams that there is little time for critical thinking on topics like war and Constitution, that are essential to our democratic order.

I made this point recently to the State Commissioner of Education of Texas when the two of us were seated next to each other at a national conference on reducing the drop out rate. She explained to me that she was nervous because after the conference she was going to have to appear before the state legislature in Austin to request over 5 billion dollars for public education. When I asked why that made her nervous she explained: “They want me to tell them we’ll have a zero percent drop out rate and I can’t.” I responded by saying “Why don’t you tell them that we’ll get a zero percent drop out rate in the schools when they start sending us zero percent of the children who are hungry, uninsured, un-immunized and un-housed”. She laughed and said “That’s a good one, but fat chance it’ll happen”.

Given our unrealistic and unfair expectations, it is hardly surprising that schools typically disappoint and fall short of the goals that have been set. American schools have never been expected to educate all children, and even more importantly, they have never been expected to eliminate racial and socio-economic disparities in achievement. For the first time in American history, closing the racial achievement gap has been embraced as a national priority. The profound significance of such a crusade can only be appreciated if one considers that for most of America’s history racial differences in achievement were presumed to be natural (i.e. rooted in innate ability), unalterable and therefore, acceptable.

I spend a great deal of time working with school districts throughout the country on efforts to close the achievement gap. Increasingly, I am impressed by the sincerity of those who lead these efforts and even more by the teachers who work tirelessly to meet the needs of their students. My experiences in our nation’s schools has led me to believe that NCLB has succeeded, not in eliminating the achievement gap, but in getting a greater number of schools to work harder at educating the students they serve. Threatened with the punitive sanctions that NCLB requires, schools and districts have gone to great lengths to find ways to raise test scores and improve academic performance.

Despite these efforts, my experiences have also led me to conclude that hard work will not be enough. In fact, if we continue to focus narrowly on finding ways to raise test scores we may drive many of our most committed educators out of public education altogether. The reason why American continues to be characterized by pervasive disparities in student achievement that correspond closely to the race and class backgrounds of children, is not because our educators aren’t working hard enough, or because parents don’t care about their children (a commonly heard accusation), but simply because as a nation we have done very little to address racial inequality.

With the adoption of civil rights laws in the 1960’s, America has made considerable progress in eliminating blatant forms of racial discrimination. The recent firing of radio talk show host Don Imus over his racist remarks, are just the most recent reminder that there is very little tolerance for public expressions of bigotry anymore. Increasingly, blacks and Latinos occupy positions of power and influence throughout American society, and the success of these individuals is frequently cited as proof that America has finally moved beyond its history of racial oppression.

However, as significant as these changes might seem, our nation has been far less successful at addressing the reality of racial inequality which manifests itself in almost every aspect of American life. There is overwhelming evidence that on every major indicator of quality of life - from wages, to health, to criminal justice and housing - not only does race continue to matter in profound and significant ways, but we remain a deeply divided society.

Nowhere are these divisions more obvious than in the field of education. Over 50 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown Decision most of our nation’s schools remain racially segregated, not be law but by fact. Even in cities like Seattle, Denver and Kansas City where whites make up the majority of the population, public schools are overwhelming comprised of non-white, poor children. Not surprisingly, the children of the poor typically don’t do as well as the children of the affluent. This is not only because affluent parents have more resources to support their children with, but also because we consistently spend more on their education.

America doesn’t just have an achievement gap, we have an allocation gap in school funding, a preparation gap due to limited access to quality pre-school, and a power gap, because poor parents are not able to exert as much influence over the schools that serve their children.

The achievement gap is nothing more than an educational manifestation of social inequality, and while there are a small but significant number of schools that have shown it is possible to produce high levels of achievement among poor children of color, doing this on a larger scale has not been possible under present circumstances.

Leaving no child behind remains an important goal, but our policy makers must realize that if we are serious about eliminating the strong association between race, class and achievement, we will have to do more than we have so far. Schools like Edison Elementary in Port Chester, NY, Roxbury Prep Charter School in Boston, and Benjamin Bannaker High School in New York, provide the proof that it is indeed possible to educate poor Black and Brown children. Their striking deviation from norms of failure and mediocrity is all the evidence we need that the problem is not the children but the way in which they are treated and served.

The real question is: do we as a nation have the will to insure that children and their families receive the support they need to achieve at higher levels and develop into healthy, well rounded adults? The answer to this question is not so much about what we will do for schools but what we do to address our pervasive racial inequality.

Pedro Noguera is a professor of sociology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and the author of the recent book The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 23, 2010

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