Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, on the new NCES study examining the Black-White achievement gap

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Publication date: 
July 14 2009 (All day)

WASHINGTON (July 14, 2009) – Today’s report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the hard work of educators and students has resulted in important progress. Achievement is rising for both African-American and white students and the gaps between them are narrowing. In fourth-grade math, for example, average performance for African-American students on the 2007 main NAEP assessment is higher than the average for white students in 1990.

But despite this improvement, we’re nowhere near where we need to be. Students in other countries still outperform students in the U.S., and while the black-white gaps in achievement are getting smaller, they remain woefully wide.

Skeptics often question whether our schools will ever be capable of closing these gaps, labeling them as “inevitable.” We think that is dead wrong. And we are not the only ones: The Obama Administration has made clear that they believe--along with scores of educators and parents throughout the nation--that we absolutely can and must close them.

And data from this report show that when we concentrate on improving instruction and expectations for all students, we have the capacity to effect real change. 

  • Leaders in Delaware put a serious statewide focus on literacy, initiating a strong accountability system tied to higher expectations for all students. To support those new demands, the state added reading specialists in schools to coach teachers and work with struggling students, and districts began using stronger curricular materials emphasizing vocabulary and writing. That intensive effort resulted in strong achievement gains in reading for both African-American and white students in grades 4 and 8, as well as a significant narrowing of the fourth-grade gap.
  • Arkansas made education reform a similar objective, ratcheting up expectations and linking instruction to standards. As the expectations bar was raised, so too were the minimum scores required on annual state assessments. While they still have a long road ahead, Arkansas posted some of the nation’s biggest gains in both fourth- and eighth-grade mathematics, significantly narrowing the eighth-grade gap between African-American and white students.

Even the personal stories of our new president and First Lady epitomize the power of education to transform the lives of students and overcome barriers like racism and low family income.

Unfortunately, the way we organize school systems often diminishes that power. Certainly, many African-American students enter school behind their white counterparts. But instead of organizing our schools to ameliorate that problem, we do exactly the opposite, providing the very students who enter behind with less of everything we know they need to be successful. African-American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter. They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum. And the schools that educate them typically receive less state and local funding than the ones serving mainly white students.

All of these "lesses" have an exponential impact on student learning. For generations, our schools systematically failed large groups of young people. Even today, despite pockets of excellence, too many African-American children still attend schools that are unworthy of their dreams and unworthy of our national values.

These patterns of inequities--and the unwillingness of some state and local leaders to address them--often sabotage the ability of students to make real academic progress. 

  • In Nebraska, the black-white gap in fourth-grade reading has doubled since 2002, while scores for African-American students have declined.
  • Wisconsin has among the largest black-white gaps in the country, with African-American students trailing their white peers by 45 points in eighth-grade math and 38 points in eighth-grade reading.
  • In Illinois, huge inequities in school spending and teacher quality contribute to unusually large gaps in performance between African-American and white students.

Despite results that range from hopeful to sobering, we have learned from stories of real progress about what it takes to get all students to achieve at high levels: high standards; rich curriculum; strong, focused instruction; and rigorous assessments. That’s why we welcome the administration’s use of an unprecedented $5 billion in discretionary “Race to the Top” funding to incentivize states to take on the bold, lasting reforms that will improve educational outcomes for all groups of students. With this effort, the Secretary of Education is paving the way for big changes in the way states and school districts do business.

Those changes will require every one of us--policymakers, educators, parents, and students alike--to push harder than ever before, and in the same direction. We can’t afford to watch another generation of young people go underserved by our educational system because we failed to address, once and for all, the achievement gaps that plague our nation’s schools. Our country is better than this. Our schools are better than this. And our students are better than this.