Zeroing In On The Achievement Gap
by Scott Bittle
The achievement gap between black and white students is one of the most persistent, troubling problems in American education, with a new report out this week calling it a "national catastrophe." Public Agenda's research shows some insights into what black and Hispanic students see happening in their schools – and how that might impact the gap.
The Council of the Great City Schools report released this week said "young black males are in a state of crisis" on many different educational fronts, including readiness to learn, reading and math skills, and being prepared for college or a career. The group, representing large urban school systems, called for a White House conference on the problem and a national plan of action.
Public Agenda has done a lot of opinion research on education, and one of the most striking findings on this problem came from our series of Reality Check surveys. When we asked parents and students several years ago about their experiences in school, we found black and Hispanic families were more likely than whites to report serious problems in their schools. In fact, if an adult were forced to work under such conditions it might be considered a hostile work environment.
For example, three in 10 black youngsters reported "very serious" levels of disruption and unrest in their schools – not just "somewhat serious," but "very serious." Black students are twice as likely as white students to say that the schools not getting enough money is a very serious problem in their community. Nearly a third of black and Hispanic youngsters say that "only some" or "very few" of their teachers give students extra help when they fall behind, compared with one in five white students.
It isn't just students, either. Minority parents are also more likely to report serious academic and social problems in their schools. Half of black (49%) and Hispanic (52%) parents say that it is a very serious problem that local schools are not getting enough money to do a good job, compared to a third of white parents (33%). Minority parents are also twice as likely as white parents to say fighting and weapons are very serious issues and are more likely to question whether local school district superintendents do enough to ensure that schools are safe and orderly. Teachers in minority schools are more likely to complain about large classes, poor teaching conditions and lack of parental support.
The achievement gap is measured by test scores, but scores aren't the whole story. There are multiple challenges that minority students face as they try to get ahead in life – and we need to work on all of them.