By Teresa Wiltz
WASHINGTON—Educators are expressing alarm that the performance gap between minority and white high school students continues to expand across the United States, with minority teenagers performing at academic levels equal to or lower than those of 30 years ago.
Despite the hope that improving education for children of color would propel them to better life outcomes, Latino and African-American students are not being prepared in high school classrooms for brighter futures. While achievement levels have improved considerably for minority elementary and middle school students, educators say their academic performance drops during high school years.
How prevalent is the achievement gap at the high school level?
On average, African-American and Latino high school seniors perform math and read at the same level as 13-year-old white students.
“We take kids that start [high school] a little behind and by the time they finish high school, they’re way behind,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington-based educational advocacy group. “That’s the opposite of what American values say education is about. Education is supposed to level the playing field. And it does the opposite. . . .While many people are celebrating our postracial society . . . there is still a significant hangover in our schools.”
The Education Trust says African-American and Latino students have made little to no progress in 12th-grade reading scores since 1994, continuing to lag behind white students. Math achievement has also remained flat, with the gap between white students and those of color widening.
Educators cite these causes for the disparity in performance:
- Lowered expectations for students of color
- Growing income inequality and lack of resources in low-income school districts
- Unequal access to experienced teachers
- An increased number of “out of field” teachers instructing minority students in subjects outside their area of expertise
- Unconscious bias” by teachers and administrators.
These factors, experts say, produce an opportunity gap for students of color.
“A 12th-grade education in a more affluent neighborhood is not the same as the education in a less affluent neighborhood,” says Dominique Apollon, research director of the Applied Research Center, a national nonprofit with offices in New York, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. “Top students in low-income schools don’t have the opportunity to be pushed further and further.”
Wilkins adds that “school is their best chance of escaping horrible circumstances. To cut them some slack in school is not the appropriate response to racism and poverty in American culture. It is a response that ends up being deadly to the students.”
School advocates say students of color, regardless of class, are frequently met with lowered expectations from teachers and administrators. With such expectations come lowered requirements in the classroom, they say. Students in low-income schools are more likely to be given an “A” for work that would receive a “C” in a more affluent school, according to “Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps Between Groups: Lessons from Schools and Districts on the Performance Frontier,” an Education Trust study released last November.
Students of color are also less likely to be given advanced-level coursework. John Capozzi, principal of Elmont (N.Y.) Memorial Junior-Senior High School, is among educators who call that a civil rights issue. Capozzi says he frequently battles those coursework perceptions, even from fellow educators and accreditation officials evaluating his school.
“They have preconceived notions about minority kids,” says Capozzi, whose students are primarily African-American and Latino. “A large part of my job . . . [is] dispelling the stereotypes of our kids. It’s long been embedded in society.”
“African Americans and Hispanics have been denied access to the more rigorous courses,” Capozzi says. All students, he says, “should be thrown into vigorous classes” and be given proper academic support to ensure their success. If they don’t have access to those classes, he says, they won’t be adequately prepared for college.
Research from the Education Trust study supports his assertion: More white high school graduates were enrolled in college prep courses than were their African-American, Latino and Native American counterparts. Often, schools attended by those minorities do not offer advanced classes.
According to Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University, “Where there’s tracking, [you have] obstacles to getting into the more rigorous classes, and the teachers aren’t that committed to teaching. Those are all signs of a dysfunctional culture. . . .In many schools, instead of encouraging kids [of color] to take [advanced courses], they’re discouraging them and putting up obstacles.”
Coming from a middle-class family doesn’t protect minority students from such obstacles. Wilkins says middle-class black youngsters aren’t doing as well as their white peers. Many are placed in less competitive classes, and a black child with high fifth-grade math scores is less likely to be enrolled in algebra in eighth grade, according to the Education Trust study.
“A lot of the time, those [middle-class black] kids are in schools where they are in the minority,” Noguera says. “If they don’t have teachers that are encouraging them, they feel alienated.”
Another obstacle for poor and minority students is that they are more likely than white students to have inexperienced and “out of field” teachers. According to Wilkins, minorities at high-poverty schools are twice as likely to be taught by “out of field” teachers — for instance, a math instructor teaching English or a science instructor teaching history. That, education experts say, is a recipe for disaster.
Low-income minority students are also more likely to have newly minted teachers, many of whom aren’t equipped to help underperforming students get on track. According to the Education Trust, low-performing students are more likely to be assigned to ineffective teachers.
“Some of the least experienced teachers are put in classrooms with our most needy kids,” says LaShawn Routé Chatmon, executive director of the National Equity Project based in Oakland. “This doesn’t mean that new teachers can’t serve needy students. But there is a trend of large numbers of teachers who aren’t fully prepared.”
The result? According to Chatmon, inexperienced teachers inadvertently perpetuate the achievement gap. Students performing below their grade must be taught at an accelerated level, she says. Teachers must be “warm demanders,” showing students respect, encouraging them to be partners in their learning and communicating clearly that they are expected to master the subject matter, Chatmon says.
This is particularly critical in the early years of high school when students learn groundwork for more advanced coursework.
“All the research shows that ninth grade is a pivotal year, for all students, but in particular minority students,” Capozzi says. “If you don’t catch them in ninth grade, the rise in dropouts increases dramatically.”
Poverty also hampers minority student achievement. Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the economy, with more and more children falling into poverty, according to Apollon.
Minority students typically attend schools that lack resources. They are also more likely to attend schools where the student-teacher ratio is high, books and computers are outdated and teacher aides aren’t available to provide extra help for those who need it most.
“Young people of color are overrepresented in the poorest schools and the poorest neighborhoods,” Apollon says. “There is a cumulative and compounding effect of structural deficiencies in many schools.”
The sluggish economy has forced many school districts to slash budgets, eliminating after-school programs and arts instruction. Many schools are underfunded, even in more affluent districts. But wealthier schools benefit because parents can organize fundraisers or pay for private tutors.
Poor parents working two and three jobs often don’t have the wherewithal to advocate for their children, education experts say. Often, the parents themselves received a substandard education. This creates a dynamic in which generations of families are stuck in a cycle of underachievement.
Also part of the poor performance of minority students is “unconscious bias.” Teachers may think that students from poor families are so traumatized that they can’t learn, experts say, and so they don’t push those children to excel. Chatmon says that as African-American boys grow physically, teachers often talk about being afraid of “their size” and tend to overpunish them. As a result, a disproportionate number of black male students are suspended and miss class instruction, making it that much harder for them to catch up.
“Unconscious bias clearly plays a role in tracking young boys of color in particular into the slower track courses,” Apollon says. “Unconscious bias clearly plays a role in terms of discipline as well. Obviously, if you’re being suspended from school, all the teachers think you’re disruptive. They’ll have lower expectations of students that have been labeled ‘undisciplined.’ That certainly will have a negative impact on a student’s ability to succeed.”