Arlington County educators, concerned about a stubborn gap in achievement between ethnic groups, have joined a new national coalition to examine the problem and find solutions.
Arlington County Superintendent Robert G. Smith and four other county educators met in Evanston, Ill., late last month with representatives of 13 other school districts worried about lagging test averages of African American and Hispanic students. The 14 superintendents promised to meet again in September while their staffs drew up proposals for further cooperation.
Arlington educators who attended the meetings said the districts compared notes on several factors that influence academic achievement, including increasing access to challenging courses, being more patient with shy or distracted students and better preparing parents for dealing with troublesome homework.
"We know the gap exists. We have been saying it for years," said Miriam Hughey-Guy, principal of Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington, who attended the three-day conference. "This will help prevent us from being complacent and accepting it as it is."
The national effort was initiated by Allan Alson, superintendent of the Evanston Township High School. He identified other ethnically diverse districts like his that had been working aggressively to close the achievement gap but had fallen short.
After his arrival in Arlington from Spring, Tex., in 1997, Smith won School Board approval for an effort to set unusually precise goals for raising student achievement. He said he wanted to raise scores by at least two percentile points in the first year and raise average minority scores even higher so that they would get at least two points closer to white students' performance.
So far, however, the county has failed to achieve that goal. On the Stanford 9 achievement test in reading, white fifth-graders in the county score on average more than 30 percentile points higher than blacks and Latinos.
In an interview, Smith said he thought the joint effort would allow information sharing on promising methods of raising minority achievement and initiation of joint research projects.
Educational researchers have long known of the achievement score gap but have assumed the problem was higher poverty rates among minorities. Studies show that parents in low-income homes of every ethnicity have on average less time, energy and interest in reading and in talking to their children in ways that buttress academic achievement.
But some studies indicate that the gap persists even when both the white and minority students have relatively affluent, well-educated parents. Experts have offered several explanations, many involving unconscious ethnic bias that leads teachers to demand less of minority students for fear of causing them frustration or embarrassment.
Kathleen F. Grover, Arlington's assistant superintendent for instruction, said one speaker at the Evanston meeting suggested the difference might be as subtle as the amount of time a teacher waits to get an answer from a student in class. "They talked about staying with the student until the student answers the question and not shifting the question to another student because of a blank look or a long pause," Grove said. Grove said she thought exchanges of visits with other districts would help expose unseen obstacles to achievement. "It is like the fact that you get used to the furniture in your house and you don't really see it anymore," she said.
Sharon Monde, the new principal of Jefferson Middle School, said the district officials also discussed helping parents. "In the minority community, you don't always get parents who are able to truly understand what the long-term benefits are of certain demanding programs," she said. "In the higher level classes, you may need tutorial support for students, and that is one of the things the school system will have to look at."
Hughey-Guy said that despite the talk about ethnic group averages, the educators agreed the focus should remain on each student's strengths and weaknesses. This summer, she said, she is having individual meetings with parents to introduce them to the books and programs their children will encounter in the fall.
Arlington School Board member Frank K. Wilson applauded the coalition's effort. "People talk about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but it takes more than just you to pull the bootstraps," he said. "You have to have some help from somewhere."