Every so often--and it seems depressingly often--some publication or another runs a story about the achievement gap between African Americans, Latinos and American Indians on the one hand, and whites on the other.
The gaps are real, but the discussions rarely stray from the same-old, same-old discussions of how academic achievement often follows socio-economic status, and how on average, African American, Latino and American Indian families have less money than white families. This has the effect of stymieing any real discussions of what schools can do to narrow the achievement gaps because, after all, what can schools do to fix poverty, inequality and racism in the United States?
But there is a growing body of work that goes beyond those tired discussions, and a new report from the College Board (they're the people who bring you the SAT) is a real contribution to expanding the discussion. The report, "Reaching the Top," comes from the College Board's National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. The task force included some of the key movers and shakers in the education world who have been working on this issue, including Yale University's James P. Comer, who has been closely associated with Prince George's County Public Schools.
The report, which is available on the Internet at www.collegeboard.org, is well worth careful study. What it says is that until now, academic efforts aimed at African American, Latino and American Indian students have concentrated only on bringing them up to minimal standards. Rather than aim so low, the report called for major new "affirmative development" programs to up the ante and aim African American, Latino and American Indian students at academic excellence. It cites examples of programs that have managed to do exactly that. Some of the programs are in colleges, others in elementary and secondary schools, but most are not widely known outside a few well-defined education circles.
One example that is close to home is the success of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County which, led by its dynamic President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, has produced large numbers of African American graduates who go on to get doctorates in the science fields. Hrabowski has done that through the Meyerhoff program, which taps undergraduate students doing science research right at the beginning of their college careers, sets extremely high standards for students and provides social and academic support for them.
Another example the report cited from higher education is the University of California-Berkeley's math workshop. The workshop was developed after a professor, Philip Uri Treisman, became interested in why African American calculus students failed in much larger numbers than Asian American students. All the students had come in with good high school preparation, and all took the calculus class very seriously and studied very hard. The math faculty had for the most part accepted the tired old explanations that the African American students came from poorer families, etc.
But Treisman went beyond that and found that the secret of success for Asian American students was that they immediately set up study groups in which they provided support and help for each other. The African American students tended to try to succeed on their own without the support of their peers--a much harder row to hoe.
As a result of Treisman's research, Berkeley set up workshops for all calculus students, and has seen the number of A's and B's earned by all students--particularly African American students--soar.
"These programs are getting results for a number of reasons," the report says. "They are concerned with both the academic and social development and integration of participating students. They stress scholastic excellence and encourage each student to do as well as he or she can."
These are programs that don't just talk about eliminating achievement gaps but actually do so by setting high standards for all students and creating clear pathways to meet them. This isn't just happening in higher education but also in elementary and secondary education. But until now, they have been isolated examples of success with little resonance outside of individual classrooms, schools or school districts. One of the reasons the College Board report is important is that it brings together these examples and finds the common threads so that they are available to all of us. Those common threads include careful attention to what is being taught, how it is taught, who is teaching it and what kinds of teaching environments are best for what kinds of students.
For example, from some excellent research that has been done in Tennessee, among other places, we know that small classes are crucially important to students who begin school with educational disadvantages. We know from some good research done in New York, among other places,that small schools are important to those same kinds of youths.
Clearly, children need to feel connected to the grown-ups in their school worlds, and they need to feel known--particularly if they don't come to school with strong educational backgrounds. Having small classes within small schools is an important start in bridging academic gaps, but it's just a start. We also need to make sure that schools are using rich, textured, academically challenging curriculums taught by teachers who not only know their subjects but understand all the latest research in how children learn.
When we do that we are rewarded by seeing achievement gaps narrow almost to nothingness. The report cites two elementary schools which have done so: Baltimore City's Barclay and Carter G. Woodson, which mostly serve poor African American students. During the past decade, the schools have used a highly structured program developed by the Calvert School, a private day school in Baltimore that serves a mostly white, affluent student body that traditionally achieves at high levels. When Barclay and Woodson started, their students scored in the 20 to 40 percentile range on national tests. Now they average in the 50 to 70 percentile range in several academic areas. No doubt those test scores would be even higher but the schools must battle a constant struggle with high mobility among their students.
It is not just that the schools are using a good curriculum, though. The schools have also provided their teachers with the training and support needed to teach the curriculum properly. These are the success stories that we need to study, and the College Board has done a service in beginning to bring them to a broader national audience, because it is time to move beyond the dispiriting old discussions about how we won't be able to eliminate achievement gaps until we eliminate poverty and racism. They just get us nowhere.
Dear Homeroom: After a Homeroom reader expressed his concern about "Hunger 101," you responded with a question regarding the value of service-learning hours [Prince George's Extra, Nov. 3]
Service-learning is learning through deeds. It supplements the academic curriculum in the classroom with real-life experiences in the community. Service-learning is supposed to make the educational experiences jump from the pages of textbooks and take on the smells, colors, shapes and sounds of life itself. It is also supposed to instill in our young people an appetite for volunteerism.
Too often, the service side of the equation is manifested in routine classroom work and forced labor in and around the school, which defeats the purpose of the program. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently launched a $13 million service-learning initiative called Learning In Deed, which finds and promotes good projects across the country. Some projects it has found include students at Britton's Neck High School in Gresham, S.C., who built a badly needed fire station in their community, and foreign language students at Laurel Park High School in Henry County, Va., who created English vocabulary books for Spanish-speaking elementary students.
There are strong indications that young people who have learning experiences outside the normal curriculum do better in school and beyond. Like most good ideas, however, the challenge is in the implementation. The goal must be to make service-learning as effective and rewarding as possible for the student, the parents, and teachers.
APCO Associates, consultant to the Kellogg Foundation
All Maryland high school students are required to serve the community in some way for 60 hours in order to graduate high school. But often some of those service learning hours, as they are called, get incorporated into classes and students hardly even notice that they served the community. Do any students or teachers in Prince George's have anything to match that fire station project in South Carolina? Write and tell Homeroom about it.
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