Achievement gap complex, but true
- Published: February 18, 2010
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN YELLOW SPRINGS This is the third in a series of articles that examine racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions. When Joyce McCurdy accepted a teaching position in the Yellow Springs School District, there was a black chief of police, a black member of Council, and a black member of school board. The principal of the high school was black, and three of McCurdy’s colleagues were also black — and actively involved in the social issues of the day. The year was 1965. That year, Martin Luther King Jr. would speak on the mound at Antioch College, calling for all people of good will to grapple with the “issues of the day” with intelligence and integrity. In 2010, education may be the issue of the day. Nationwide, public schools are in a period of transition, marked by funding constraints, state curriculum mandates, and a youth culture that is inclined to multitask at the speed of bit-rate data. But somewhere within this flux, one thing has not changed much: the gap in educational achievement levels between students of color and white students persists. Despite the fact that the village was an early model of diversity, this achievement gap is also evident in the Yellow Springs school district. The issue is not one of ability, and there are students of color who excel in Village schools. But the achievement gap is evident over time, and can be seen as an issue of aspiration that is complicated by factors such as identity and family culture, and teacher assumptions. While educators surveyed for this article were quick to note that these factors affect all students, in American society — and in Yellow Springs — these factors may have a disproportionate impact on black and biracial youth.
Achievement gap in data
Last summer, Yellow Springs High School principal John Gudgel set out to see if data would support his anecdotal perceptions. A lifetime of participation in the Yellow Springs schools — first as a student, then teacher, then guidance counselor and finally principal of the middle and high schools — led to a suspicion that students of color in the district, on average and over a sustained period of time, achieve less academically than their white peers. According to Gudgel’s survey, grade point averages, or GPA, show a disparity between black students and white students. Grade point averages over the last 11 years suggest that the lower the grade point average, the higher the percentage of black students in the cohort, he said. Over that 11-year time, students of color represent just 14 percent of the 3.0 to 4.0 GPA range, while 31 percent of the 2.0 to 2.9 range and 40 percent of the 0 to 1.9 range are represented by students of color. A disparity can also be seen in participation in advanced placement courses, Gudgel said. While about 29 percent of middle and high school students are students of color, the number of these students in AP classes is, in some cases, zero, or often in the single digits. A disproportionate number of students of color are in the special education program. In the 2008–2009 school year, 16 percent of the student body had an IEP, an individualized education plan that details how curriculum should be modified for that student to best support learning. A full 42 percent of students with IEPs are students of color. In addition, the number of students of color inducted into the National Honor Society has decreased in recent years. Between 1970 and 2010, Yellow Springs High School inducted 519 students into the National Honor Society. Sixty-four of those inductees were students of color, or about 12 percent. But in the last ten years, only 10 out of 152 inductees were students of color, or 6.5 percent, a trend Gudgel finds alarming. Lower academic performance for sustained periods of time for students of color “is what it is,” Gudgel said. “And it is something we need to address.” In recent interviews, local educators focused on three main factors affecting all students today: students’ identification with popular culture, educational expectations placed on students at home, and students’ relationships with teachers. Each educator made statements about student culture that they feel apply to all students, regardless of color or class. Still, the awareness that students of color, on average, perform lower than other students in the high school and middle school was recognized as a community problem that calls for dialogue.
Mainstream images of “black”
A mindset that is unfortunately strong in the black community, Gudgel said, is the trend to adopt the images that mainstream society sets out as “black.” For many students of color, it is difficult to step outside the idea that “it is cooler to be a baller or a rapper than a doctor or a lawyer,” Gudgel said. When a young person’s sense of self is fueled by embodying images of popular culture, instead of developing their own nuanced identity while challenging themselves to achieve, students box themselves in prematurely, those interviewed said. And the influences of popular culture permeate youth earlier than we think. Aurelia Blake has been teaching language arts at the middle school for more than 10 years. While she doesn’t see differences amongst students of color and white students “as clearly and severely” as can be seen at the upper grades, she does recognize that beginning at this age academic pressures begin to intensify. On top of that added pressure, adolescence strikes, and all students are challenged in new ways. Still, adolescent students of color may have more to navigate than white adolescents. “There is a lot that goes into being a black person in this country,” she said. For black adolescent females, the image portrayed in mainstream culture suggests that the sum total of the female self is invested in sexuality. Black adolescent males are pumped with images of what it is to be cool, Blake said, and because of the associations portrayed in mainstream media culture, this identity is often perceived by others as threatening. When black male adolescents assert themselves, as all adolescents are called to do, it’s all too easy for authority figures to see their actions in the light of these larger associations. “Even in our attempts to be equitable, we can fall into stereotype relations,” she said of adults, especially those who deal with discipline in the schools. Students need strong role models that challenge “vapid” stereotypes, and teachers and administrators need to have insight into the complicated process of becoming an adult, Blake said. Like Blake, high school teacher John Day uses media education to explore issues of racial identity with students in world history and social psychology. A teacher here for 18 years, the achievement gap has been around as long as he has been in the district. In Day’s classroom experience, students tend to express that Yellow Springs schools are more diverse than other schools, because there are fewer cliques, and even when students can be seen to form groups, the groups can be seen to interact. But classroom discussions tend to “stay abstract” and be a little less revealing than the papers students write, Day said. Part of Day’s approach to open a dialogue with students about race and stereotypes is to have students take the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, an online quiz found at http://implicit.harvard.edu. The tests, designed for topics like race and gender bias, are meant to identify the test taker’s ability to make associations between concepts. The Race IAT has been highly controversial, because many people, including minorities, find they can associate images of African Americans with negative concepts more readily than they can associate images of African Americans with positive concepts. “Everyone wants to say there is no race issue,” Day said, “but in reality, we can’t help but have some different attitudes, just from being raised in our culture. But people don’t like to think about that. I see that as a way to open the door a little bit.”
Making achievement practical
Educators surveyed for this article all recognized that there is an achievement gap, but also cautioned that thinking of the gap through the race lens alone can conceal other factors that could lead to action. English teacher Desireé Nickell is in her sixth year at the high school. Nickell finds that part of the achievement gap can be attributed to choices made by students, though not entirely. Nickell recently nominated students for advanced placement courses, some of whom were students of color. However, it happened that the students of color she nominated elected not to take the advanced placement courses. When Nickell followed up with these students, one preferred to take a class with friends, while others said they were uncomfortable taking on the extra load. One student chose a post secondary enrollment option instead, which Nickell said is equal to or greater than the AP option. “If we carefully examine the reasons for students’ choices,” Nickell said, “then we can arrive at something we can do something about.” For instance, if an exploration found that students of color are not comfortable in advanced placement classes, then the school could develop a plan to do something about that. Generally, Nickell said, students today are very practically minded, and their perceptions about the likelihood of certain approaches to getting through high school and going to college drive their decision-making. In some ways, this might encourage trends that can, from afar, be seen as stereotypical, such as minority students focusing on athletics instead of academics. On the other hand, when you see the steep competition for academic scholarships, looking toward an athletic scholarship is a reasonable choice for many students. Prior to teaching in Yellow Springs, Nickell worked in the Dayton Public School system, at a school that served a student body of 95 percent students of color. Despite the fact that Nickell’s inner city students had a range of demographics that would suggest low academic achievement, students involved in the school’s International Baccalaureate program excelled because of a few key characteristics, Nickell said. These factors included involved parents and many social and academic support mechanisms offered through local churches and organizations. In addition, students were active in the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Through black sororities and fraternities, students had the benefit of early social networks that extended into their college careers and professional lives. Further, Dayton Public Schools created a network of scholarships that served a variety of students, which made striving for academic achievement a more practical goal. For Nickell, while certain elements underlying the achievement gap can, and should, be chased down to their actionable ends, broader conversations about race in education are still needed, for both students and teachers. “On the surface, kids will, as a group, deny that there are any racial issues at the high school. They say that blacks and whites mix, and that interracial dating is no problem,” Nickell said. “And yet you can observe groups separate by race. You can see that all the time, even if there is a lot of overlap.” Most if not all teachers consider themselves color blind, having spent their whole careers being acutely aware of the issues behind discrimination in the classroom, she said. But assuming laziness is the cause of a student’s lack of success can be a form of discrimination, and a district that fails to create enough scholarship opportunities that give students of color something to strive for can also be discrimination, she said. “You do have to air the issues,” she said, “but you also have to ask, ‘what are some concrete things we can do to go forward and make changes?’” Nickell cited a weekend workshop held by Gudgel, the Human Relations Commission, and the 365 Project facilitated by Dana Patterson of the Wright State University Bolinga Cultural Center. By day two, the conversations became very open, and students revealed elements of their personal experience that were surprising to many involved in the workshop. Students know when they face discrimination, Nickell said, and it does happen here. “It was a forum where people felt safe to talk about issues, and creating more forums where people feel safe would be a good thing,” Nickell said.
Instilling educational values
Nickell had to learn new variations on her teaching style when she came to Yellow Springs, to balance cultural styles found in her classroom. While some students flourish in “an Antioch School style” situation, other students need a lot of structure. How a teacher addresses the classroom can greatly impact who will succeed, she said. One style of communication is reflective in nature, and asks students to consider the consequences of their actions. Another style of communication is more direct, and just commands that something be done. Other educators agreed that classroom styles are very important to student success. Like others, Day is concerned that students of color, especially males, might be referred for disciplinary action more often than other student populations. But in general, Day characterized the achievement gap to be, in many ways, a gap of culture and class-based values. In his years of experience, students who come from economically disadvantaged homes tend to struggle to succeed, no matter their race. Part of the picture is that students of low income often lack the drive to really apply themselves, but another part of the picture is that teachers have certain expectations. “By and large, teachers come from middle class backgrounds, and have middle class values,” he said. “Kids who do not share middle class values tend to have more trouble.” How teachers can entice disaffected youth to love learning when the societal priorities seem to under-value education is the million-dollar question, Day said. During the last round of parent-teacher conferences, Day said approximately one-eighth of the parents of his students came. The students who are disaffected or struggling academically, no matter their race, are all too often the same families that do not come, despite phone calls to encourage attendance. Teachers recognize that the modern family is in a state of flux, in much the same way as public education is changing. But those families who seem to have emphasized the value of education to their children seem to be the same families whose students do well in the schools. Education is a family affair, according to Blake, who said work habits, and a willingness to apply oneself, come from the family. If no one is at home with high expectations, it doesn’t matter if a student is black or white, they won’t excel, she said. “Kids are kids are kids,” Blake said. If every household were run the way a farming household was managed, Blake thinks things would be different. The idea of academic achievement would be based upon the amount of labor you put into it, and everyone would see results, she said. “We’re trying to get students prepared for the 21st century,” Blake said. “It just takes that kind of work to get excellence.” Yellow Springs has a good number of students who excel, McCurdy said, but a greater number of students just want to get by, and from her perspective, this trend knows no color lines. By and large, students are not engaged in contemporary issues and have a multitude of distractions, especially through the use of electronics, to cancel out what is going on around them. “Family life is tough today,” McCurdy said, and with shifting dynamics and overworked parents, there is less ability to “share the load.” As the cost of living in the community goes up, so does the burden of getting by. In addition, youth are steeped in media that introduces mature concepts at earlier ages than before, and many students embody the “party element” that McCurdy sees as increasingly becoming part of the high school experience. But the world that lies just beyond the high school, and beyond Yellow Springs, is changing at an even quicker pace. Many students know friends who have graduated from college, she said, but still have no job. This leads some students to embrace the idea that education is futile, because the options seem limited. Like the other educators surveyed, McCurdy believes it comes down to dialogue, and making sure that education is relevant to the issues of the day.
Solutions within reach
National research that attempts to uncover the reasons behind the national black-white disparity in education is wide ranging, and contradictory. But one thing is for sure: Yellow Springs’ demographic is somewhat unique, and the schools’ graduation rates for students of color are higher than national and state averages. This is no reason to rest on our laurels, educators said, but should instead propel us to overcome the achievement gap. Given the school district’s size and the support of the community, Gudgel said there is no reason, in his opinion, that students of color shouldn’t excel in the Yellow Springs school district. While some do, he said, the average student of color is not achieving at a level that should be expected of the district. According to Gudgel, the first step is to continue the dialogue, even if (or especially if) it is uncomfortable to do so. Since discrimination often happens in ways that are not readily apparent — or even intentional — teachers, students, families and communities must be aware of the effects that subtle assumptions can have on all students, but especially students of color. Further, the district needs to continue exploring the data on the village schools, including elementary and middle school statistics, and integrating information from the Ohio achievement and graduation tests, Gudgel said. Parents of students of color should be interviewed to gather qualitative data to address the big questions: where do the origins of the gap lie? Why does it persist? What effect does having no black male educators in the district have on male students of color? What is the relationship between GPA, special education referral and race? “In a community such as Yellow Springs, I think we have the ability to control, factor in and expose our young people to what is really important. I think it has to be a shared responsibility for all of us in the community to recognize this, and not just for the African-American kids, but for all our kids,” Gudgel said.