Why haven’t we closed the achievement gap between white and minority students in fifty years of trying?

The achievement gap is “any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students, such as white students and minorities, for example, or students from higher-income and lower-income households.”

The gap between the level of achievement of minority students and white students in Minnesota is among the largest in the country. It’s not a new problem.

Efforts to improve outcomes for minority students began with the 1964 Civil Rights Act which required that the commissioner of education “conduct a survey and report to the president and Congress…concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public educational institutions.” The result was the Coleman Report, published in 1966.

We know what doesn’t work because we’ve tried: desegregation, busing, reforms such as the self-esteem movement, p­re-school, teacher quality, testing, class size, standards-based instruction or increased spending generally.

Page 325 of the Coleman Reports states: Schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

A 20-year-old study by the Brookings Institution posits that improving parenting skills may be as important as improving schools but immediately acknowledges the difficulty of attempting to tell parents how to raise their children.  “As a practical political matter, whites cannot tell black parents to change their parenting practices without provoking charges of ethnocentrism, racism, and much else.” Importantly, the study also surmised that closing the achievement gap would do more to advance racial equality in the United States than any other strategy they were considering at the time.

This spring the Atlantic Monthly ran an article about a parenting program called the “Boston Basics” and asked, “Can Love Close the Achievement Gap?”

NOTE: The achievement gap between white and minority students in Minnesota is as large as it is not because our minority students do worse than the national average but because our white students do much better.



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