How the Black-White achievement gap sabotages equal opportunity
By former Secretary of Education Dr. Rod Paige and Dr. Elaine Witty, Ed D.
In the centuries-long struggle for racial equality and social justice, African-Americans have faced barriers embedded in law, rooted in social and economic custom, and enforced by racial terror. And one by one, each primary barrier standing in the way of African-American advancement has been confronted and defeated by a resolute African-American leadership.
That is, until now.
More than half a century after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, inequality still reigns supreme in America’s classrooms. Based on results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other studies, African-American students score below 75 percent of white students on most standardized tests. It is no coincidence that young white adults are approximately twice as likely as their black peers to earn a college degree and nearly three times less likely to land in prison. In critical academic matters, why do black American children overwhelmingly lag behind white American children? And what are the long-term economic, social, and racial ramifications for our country if we continue to overlook this deeply distressing reality?
“Now is the time to see the gap as what it really is: the major barrier to racial equality and social justice in America,” Paige stresses. He calls on African-American leaders at all levels—national, state, city, town, and church—to take ownership of this challenge and work with policy makers, educators, community groups, and parents to overcome it. Paige believes that closing the gap will require a shift in thinking in terms of where African-American leaders commit their energy and effort.
“This achievement gap cannot be eliminated unless and until African-American leadership begins to focus intently on addressing the unacceptable underperformance of black students relative to their white peers. We know these students can do better. They can perform as well as their white peers if they are provided the right learning environments and if they receive the messages of our high expectations—that they can, in fact, succeed.”
The hard-hitting data on test scores and high school dropout rates clearly establishes the fact that the gap exists. Unfortunately, many do not realize the far-reaching consequences of that educational disparity. Paige and Witty contend that this should be an urgent issue of debate for presidents of historically black colleges, organizations such as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, and national think tanks, among others. The persistence of the black-white achievement gap slows down the accumulation of African-American wealth; leads to more African-Americans without health insurance, in prison, and dying early; and, worst of all, strengthens the stereotype and stigma of blacks as intellectually inferior. Because of its destructive consequences, Paige and Witty argue, the achievement gap crisis now ranks ahead of racism and discrimination as the most formidable obstacle to African-American advancement.
Why do African-Americans continue to suffer an educational disadvantage? What are the solutions?
THE BLACK-WHITE ACHIEVEMENT GAP confronts these difficult, sensitive, and important questions. More importantly, the authors also provide concrete, timely, and bipartisan answers to those questions. The African-American community possesses the necessary resources to close the gap if they will:
- Rally all leaders—liberal and conservative, black and white—with an authentic commitment to racial equality and social justice for African-Americans to enlist in the cause of eliminating the achievement gap and to stop engaging in activities that perpetuate it, including focusing on the legacy of slavery and associating the endeavor to do well in school with “acting white.”
- Embrace the view that home and family, community environment, and school quality all play a vital role in determining children’s educational possibilities. Work together to design and implement gap-closing intervention strategies beyond the school—such as tutoring and reading workshops for parents—as well as within them.
- Create a consistently high standard of school quality nationwide—and hold school board officials, school superintendents and principals, and classroom teachers accountable for meeting it—backed by the belief that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status or ZIP code, can learn and excel in school.
Throughout the book, Paige and Witty offer inspiring examples of outstanding schools, proven educational initiatives and community programs, and specific suggestions for how national organizations, local civic and religious groups, and dedicated parents can make a decisive difference in the education and future of today’s African-American children.
President Obama recently announced that he will ask Congress for $1.35 billion to extend an education grant program for states. While improving schools is an important step, the authors stress that schools alone cannot close the gap. A clarion call to civil rights leadership, THE BLACK WHITE ACHIEVEMENT GAP is also a wake-up call for leaders, citizens, and parents of all races. “Closing the achievement gap is a task that offers opportunities for all of us to serve. Each of us has a responsibility to do our part,” says Witty.
ROD PAIGE was U.S. Secretary of Education from 2001 through 2005 under President George W. Bush. He served as Superintendent of Houston Schools for eight years and was Dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University for 10 years. He currently serves as a board member to numerous foundations, corporations, and non-profit organizations working to advance education in the United States and around the world. He lives in Houston, Texas.
ELAINE WITTY, Ed.D, served 18 years as Dean of Education at Norfolk State University and is a noted educator. Prior to working in higher education, she taught in elementary, middle, and high schools. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina.
This article is based on The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time (AMACOM; February 16, 2010), by Dr. Rod Paige and Dr. Elaine Witty Ed. D.