Achievement Gap Persists, but More Money Isn’t the Answer

Published December 20, 2010

A report criticizing the persistent lag in achievement between black and white students says a 50-year effort to close the gap has failed. But the report’s call for more federal resources has elicited controversy.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the largest urban public school systems in the United States, said the purpose of the “Call for Change” report is to bring attention to the low academic achievement rates of black males.

Complaining of the absence of a “national policy that would drive resources or attention to the issue,” the report concludes: “This is a national catastrophe, and it deserves coordinated national attention.”

The report analyzes National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data broken down by race from 2003 to 2009.

New National Effort Sought
The study’s authors found at least half of African-American eighth-grade males in all but four Trial Urban District Assessment districts performed below the basic literacy level in reading on the NAEP.

Just 3 percent of black, male eighth-graders scored proficient in reading in Milwaukee, and just 13 percent in Austin. Nationally, the report points out, 9 percent of African American males are proficient in reading.

The report laments that the U.S. Department of Education has no specified office to collect or maintain data on the academic progress of black males. The authors also point to a lack of legislative projects at the state, local, or national level to address the paucity of data. Outside of a few dedicated organizations, the report notes, the collection of information is sparse and diffuse.

Gap Is Closing—in Florida
Although the report’s findings are worrisome, critics disagree with its suggestion more federal involvement in education is warranted and would improve outcomes.

Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, says some state-level reforms are beginning to narrow the achievement gap. African-American students in Florida made twice the gains of the national average in reading between 1998 and 2008.

Ladner noted black students in Florida now outpace or tie the statewide average of all students in reading in eight states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and New Mexico. If African-American students nationally had made the same amount of progress as black students in Florida, the fourth-grade reading gap between black and white students would be approximately half what it is today, Ladner says.

“The beauty of federalism is that it has produced a shining example in Florida of how to overcome these achievement gaps, illustrating that the racial divide in learning is a problem that can be fixed.” Ladner added. “Florida has had great success for students who traditionally struggle the most to learn—low-income and minority children.

“Because of these widespread reforms, Florida was able to accomplish a goal many other states across the country have only dreamt of: Education unions effectively lost control of K–12 policy in Florida. Florida’s academic successes were made possible by commonsense changes to the educational landscape achieved by reformers, students, and teachers, not by increasing federal control over education, establishing ‘blue-ribbon’ commissions, or throwing more money into a broken system,” Ladner added.

‘Reinforces Wrong Ideas’
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) in New Jersey, called the report’s findings pertinent, but he noted there are other important factors at work. 

“[There are] key factors that parallel the low performance of black males. Their socioeconomic indicators mean that, en masse, they are far more likely than any subgroup to receive an underperforming teacher or one teaching out of content specialization. And for the same socioeconomic factors they are disproportionately unable to exit underperforming, largely urban, public school monopolies,” Bradford noted.

“If you can’t acknowledge this, you cannot see the forest for the trees,” Bradford concluded.

Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis, says the report “reinforces all the wrong ideas” about what constitutes effective reform.

“It leads to a focus on ‘sounding the alarm’ and ‘doing something’ just for the sake of doing something,” he said “We create special new initiatives and programs—in other words, new bureaucracies. Just what we need, when only half of the nation’s education employees are teachers—more bureaucracy.”

‘Not Serious’
Forster says the Council of Great Cities report is interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it says.

“Here’s a list of words that don’t appear anywhere in the report: Union, tenure, seniority, contract, fire, discipline, transfer, curriculum, certification, training, merit, evaluation, accountability, charter, voucher. The words ‘choice’ and ‘scholarship’ are used, but only with reference to college, not K-12 schools. Believe it or not, even the word ‘teacher’ appears only twice—both times merely to assert that teachers will be involved in the preparation of the council’s future reports,” Forster noted. “These people are not serious.”

“This isn’t reform; it’s the blob trying to hijack the reform agenda,” Forster said.

Lindsey M. Burke ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Internet Info:
Sharon Lewis, Candace Simon, Renata Uzzell, Amanda Horwitz, and Michael Casserly, “A Call for Change: The Social and Education Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools” (Council of the Great City Schools, Nov. 2010):