Achievement Gap: Racial or Economic?

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about the achievement gap in Charlottesville — that is, that black students tend to score lower on standardized tests than do white students. With the racial concerns stirred up around Superintedent Scottie Griffin, the issue has gotten quite a bit more attention recently. What’s not clear, though, is whether the problem is an economic one that tends to manifest itself along racial lines, or whether it’s a problem with race at its roots. In the African-American Reflector, Corey Carter has an article addressing that question:

It is true that poor children be they black or white have achievement problems, generally speaking, because of their home environment. However, it is reckless to assign poverty as the primary cause for the achievement gap in a feeble attempt to deracialize institutional racism. Whether a black child lives on Hardy Drive, or in Greenbrier, or in Farmington, they will be subjected to institutional racism and have less opportunities to be successful in school.

I don’t know if the root cause is racism or class-based disadvantage, but I’m glad we’re talking about it.

7 Responses to “Achievement Gap: Racial or Economic?”


  • I just don’t understand the argument. Where is the institutional racism that is keeping black children from scoring well on standardized tests? Public schools are open to everyone. The schools teach the same material to black and white kids. The kids all take the same test. The tests are all scored with the same answer key. Show me where the racism is. I find it very hard to believe that the children of a rich black family in Farmington somehow have less chance to be successful in school.

  • Well, I’m not sure that I agree with the argument, but I thought the author of it DID make pretty clear where the institutional racism is–I quote from the author:

    “[Black students] will be less likely to be recommended for gifted programs even though they show promise. They will be less likely to be recommended for the lead part in the school play. They will be less likely to asked to join the debate or forensics team and if they do, they will be uncomfortable because of the many people in the room that don’t think they belong and who unknowingly act out social cues that reveal their thoughts. They will be less likely to be recommended for awards. They will be less likely to be guided on a college track by Guidance Counselors. They will be encouraged to go to CATEC. They will earn a “C” in class without trying hard if they have good behavior. Teachers will do and say things in some cases that show their aversion to black students. They will find that their teachers spend very little time teaching material about the struggles of their people. Or their teachers will patronizingly ask them to be the spokesperson for all black people.”

    So, when you point out that public schools are open to everyone etc., you kind of miss his point (even though it’s right there in the argument). I think the author is making a distinction between de jure and de facto racism. De jure racism is all the legally codified, explicit kinds of discrimination that we used to have–public schools closed to black kids, separate water fountains, etc. That’s all done away with. De facto racism is how people continue to behave even in the absence of de jure racism; arguably, that problem has never gone away. Even if the law says black kids go to public schools, that doesn’t ensure that teachers treat them the same.

    I think the author is pointing out that racism in the U.S. has never merely been a problem of laws–it’s a problem of people and attitudes and practices. I mean, it’s not as if those laws parachuted in from Mars (“oh, look, a law saying blacks and whites can’t marry–how did that get there?”). The laws were originally written because people had racist beliefs and wanted to act on them. The Supreme Court gradually overtuned all those laws, but arguably the beliefs and attitudes remained untouched (with racists just grousing about federal meddling in states’ rights).

    It seems pretty plausible to me (a white person) that a black kid, even from Farmington, experiences racism on a daily basis. Yeah, he’s going to really good schools and his parents have tons of money–but when he walks down the street in a predominantly white community, he’s still “the black guy.” Maybe at his 97% white school the people who’ve gotten to know him have gradually gotten beyond his race, but on the first day of classes? the other students don’t say to themselves “wow, a black kid–he must be all violent” or “huh, I bet he got in here on a diversity quota rather than on his merit.” Okay, now imagine the teachers are saying that too, to themselves–and you know many of them are. Okay, now imagine that every time he enters a new situation in a predominantly white environment….you get the idea. Don’t tell me this is far-fetched–I teach at UVa, I see how the white kids (majority) react to the one black kid in my classes.

    So it also seems totally plausible to me to argue that we have not yet achieved a culture in which your skin color doesn’t matter. Just because the laws are gone doesn’t mean the attitudes are gone.

  • i won’t believe any of this until m. rick tells me it’s true.

  • cville_libertarian

    I’m sorry – I was going to resist (hard for me) commenting on this until I’d had the chance to take a look at some of the actual studies out there. I don’t think there’s a huge value in debate/discussion of anecdotal evidence: we can all come up with plenty of exceptions to ‘prove’ the general rule/statement.

    In this case, I think the argument presented in the article, which is somewhat difficult to distinguish between “institutional racism” and the closed loop that persistent poverty sets up: by really dispossessing a large group of people of their culture, learning and social systems, and leaving them destitute, on a racist basis, you condemn them to poverty. Poverty, all by itself, begets poverty.

    I would disagree, based on my own personal (anecdotal) experience, that the CCPS actively engage in active racism (as the author describes it, there is an active decision on the part of the racists to not advance african american students in the same way as whites). This is mainly because the schools are so desparate for success stories – there is no question that most teachers are desparate for ‘minority’ achievers, that in many cases, those students get the benefit of the doubt and are pushed.

    I would buy the idea of ‘instititutionalized racism” in the closed loop of a community that appears to either not value education, or not capable of what is required of parents to get their kids up to speed. Of course, kids from families where mom and dad have to work two or three minimum wage jobs just to keep their heads above water aren’t getting a lot of quality parental instruction time – and that’s not the ‘fault’ of the parents so much as society.

    The single biggest difference we can make is in EARLY INTERVENTION! Head Start and pre-school. It sure wouldn’t hurt if the community leadership spent more time harping on what the community could do rather than what the schools could do.

    The Reflector needs to live up to it’s name, and ask the community it serves, “what if the kids aren’t being treated differently by the schools; what if the difference starts at home?”. Demonstrating by example the value placed on command of the language, literacy and mathematical ability sends kids the cues about what parents want and expect. Kids really do listen. A culture which mocks those values repeatedly will surely result in kids who don’t really care about education. This cycle is institutional racism…and it’s not clear that the answer lies only outside the community – much of it must come from within.

  • “Survey: City school morale low” March 24 2005, Daily Progress
    http://www.dailyprogress.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=CDP/MGArticle/CDP_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1031781763101&path=

    Seventy-eight percent of Charlottesville school employees who responded to a recent survey said they lacked confidence in the direction the division was moving.

    Julie Gronlund, vice chairwoman of the School Board, said she found it the “most alarming” of the responses to the survey’s 18 questions. “I think a lot of it has to do with communication. We need a strategic plan. Our vision needs to be defined. People can’t have confidence unless they know where we’re going, and I think that’s the problem.”

    … Bekah Saxon, president of the education association, said she hoped the survey would encourage more collaboration with parents.

    “We have some real work to do in communicating our ideas and making sure people know them,” Saxon said. “A lot of that stems from people who don’t understand the new requirements of No Child Left Behind. I hope that what will come from this is an awareness from the School Board and parents that we all need to have an open dialogue.”

    COMMENT: Our school system has no strategic plan or vision. So people have no confidence in the system. The solution: people must be “educated” until they agree that there is no problem. Wouldn’t it be nice if leaders addressed the complaints instead of dismissing the complainers?

    The achievement gap is sort of like urban renewal: It’s real. Both came into existence about the same time. Nobody is responsible. It’s everywhere but somehow invisible. To disagree means you’re just dumb. See how easy it is?

  • If we want to close the gap we need to first commit to low class sizes. It does matter- 24 kids means 4 behavior problems instead of 2.
    One thing we must realize is that there are parents who care and those that don’t (of all races). How can we as a community bring these kids to a level of success if there is no support at home? These kids jsut fall farther and farther behind.

  • There are three issues: (1) whether the gap exists; (2) the cause of the gap; and (3) what can educators and society overall do about the gap. The answer to number one is not in question – research has supported that a gap between black and white students on a variety of measures exists, even after controlling for SES (socio-economic status). Number two is a bit more complex (the cause of the gap). Research has supported that there a number of factors which cause this gap. Both racism (institutional and direct) and economic factors, mentioned by others in this forum, are among those causal factors. The third issue, what educators and society overall can do about the gap, has also been discussed in research into “closing the gap.” Certainly, education is a top priority. Addressing discriminatory policies and other institutional forms of racism is another priority. Programs addressing racist attitudes and perceptions among folks in the community (from kids on up) is yet another.

    It is important that these issues are discussed in forums like these, but it is also important to understand the difference between a discussion of fact versus opinion. All of the issues in question have been answered through rigorous scientific analysis, and confirmed by millions of anecdotal experiences. Due to the overwhelming evidence, whether racism exists is no longer a matter of opinion. In other words, there are facts to support an assertion one way or the other. Basing a statement regarding the existence of racism on personal opinion is no longer a helpful practice in light of the facts that are currently available. To be sure, there are grey areas throughout these issues, but these areas should be explored on a factual, evidence-seeking manner.

    With that said, I absolutely love to discuss this, and have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments.

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