High (And Low) Expectations: Racist Assumptions Widen Achievement Gap

When my brother was a high school senior he quietly took the SATs and applied to college. When he received several acceptance letters and chose U.C. Davis because it was tough academically and he could play on its well-ranked football team, some of his teachers were shocked. He got into Davis? How? They wondered. They were surprised to find out that he had a good GPA. Surprised, it seemed, that a Latino boy like himself, who ran around getting into trouble and serenading the girls, had aspirations beyond high school.

Well, he did. And so do thousands of other Latino and African-American kids who make up the bulk of California's high dropout rates and low standardized test scores. These are the kids who live in the poorest areas and can't seem to catch up to their white and Asian counterparts when it comes to test scores. But their desire to be educated at a rigorous college prep level has been demonstrated by efforts like the student-led campaign demanding a mandatory college-prep curriculum for all students in the Los Angeles Unified Schools in 2005. The campaign was driven by black and Latino students from the city's lowest performing, poorest schools.

A few weeks ago, a New York Times article drew attention, again, to the state of the nation's black and Latino kids: The gap in achievement "between the races," the article pronounced, has not decreased. The same exam given to a white student and a Latino or African-American student at the same grade level is yielding dismally disparate results. If the white or Asian student scores 7 out of 10, the Latino or African American student, national assessment tests have shown, typically scores 3 out of 10. This same gap in scores will persist over time, grade after grade.

The conversation about achievement gaps comes at a time when the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's landmark federal education policy that vowed to close the gap by 2014, is up for debate. In the last four years, the NCLB has only inched incrementally toward closing the gap. A week after the first article in the Times, a lengthier article in the New York Times Magazine was dedicated to the same issue.

Talk of achievement gaps between races inevitably prompts a discussion about racial superiority (and, conversely, inferiority). Within hours of the Times' article, 17,000 people had posted comments on the New York Times website. Race, and not schools or teachers or resources or home environments, many people wrote, is what determines the difference in performance. "How does a 'democratic' society come to grips with a large group of people who, through no fault of their own but their genetic inheritance, are incapable of attaining competency in the basic three R's of Public Education?" wrote one commentator. Another wrote, "...just like Black folks dominate basketball, perhaps White folks (and Asians) are meant to dominate the classroom. Why fight nature?"

This assumption -- that some kids, by nature, are just smarter than others -- is held not only by e-mail commentators, but also by many educators. No one wants to talk about it because of what it reveals: that achievement gaps may be prompted or perpetuated by our own internalized prejudices and assumptions about certain kids, what President Bush has called the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Changing these ideas about how certain kids will perform, the same ones made about my brother and his future, is key to closing the achievement gap.

"We start with assumptions that some kids are going to do poorly and we prove our own assumptions by the way we teach," says Linda Murray, former Superintendent of San Jose Unified School District and resident Superintendent at Ed Trust West, an educational research organization in Oakland. Murray says Ed Trust West compared school assignments between kids in high-poverty schools and kids in affluent schools, and came up with disturbing results.

"If you go into a school in a high-poverty area and you look at the kind of assignments kids are given, they're at a much lower level than kids in more affluent areas," Murray says.

"I think it's thinly veiled hints of racism when people start accepting the notion that kids can't do well," says Steve Barr, director of Green Dot Public Schools, a network of eight charter schools strategically located near Los Angeles' biggest and worst public high schools. Impatient and upset over the 50 percent student dropout rate in the city, Barr decided to open up small charter schools peopled with students commonly believed to be lost causes: poor black and Latino youths from L.A.'s worst public schools. He says acknowledging prejudices and assumptions about certain students was necessary in order for him to move forward.

"I think we all have to overcome our conditioned prejudices," he says. "I still fight it. We should all just accept that and understand it. Once you embrace your own prejudice then the journey becomes more exciting."

Schools like Barr's, which are now graduating 70-80 percent of their high-poverty, high-minority students and sending the majority of them off to four-year colleges are considered "diamonds in the rough" when it comes to the public school landscape. Universities continue to spend money on research on how to fix the state's schools. School districts fight over contracts and money. "You listen to these people drone on like its some big mystery or something," Barr says. "We know what works: small schools, high expectations, pushing decisions, financing down to the site base and parental involvement, work," he says. "How do we know this? Because that's what the market will tell you. Those are the demands of people writing $25,000 checks every year for private school."

More than half of students who come into Green Dot schools as high school freshmen read at a fourth grade level. Within one year, 90 percent of those students are reading at proficiency. The gap, it seems, is closed. But it takes work to unravel eight years of neglect, Barr says. Students are put into two English classes, tutored in reading before and after school and made to work hard.

Today, my brother is a teacher working with incarcerated adults. "A lot of it is a battle within yourself to stay consistent," he says about keeping a culture of high expectations alive and well among his students. "There are so many different issues, so many of them negative." But within the last two years, he has seen his students work harder and do better. He expects them to do no less.

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